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The centennial edition of major Filipino writer Jos? Garcia Villa's collected poetry
Known as the 'Pope of Greenwich Village,' Jos? Garcia Villa had a special status as the only Asian poet among a group of modern literary giants in 1940s New York that included W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, and a young Gore Vidal. But beyond his exotic ethnicity, Villa was a global poet who was admired for 'the reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration in [his] bravely deep poems' ...
The centennial edition of major Filipino writer José Garcia Villa's collected poetry
Known as the 'Pope of Greenwich Village,' José Garcia Villa had a special status as the only Asian poet among a group of modern literary giants in 1940s New York that included W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, and a young Gore Vidal. But beyond his exotic ethnicity, Villa was a global poet who was admired for 'the reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration in [his] bravely deep poems' (Marianne Moore). Doveglion (Villa's pen name-for dove, eagle, and lion) contains Villa's collected poetry, including rare and previously unpublished material.
I knew of him, of course. In Manila, he possessed an outsized reputation both for his bohemian ways and, more importantly, his pronouncements on the state of Philippine letters. His selections of stories and poems that he judged worthy of notice had all the weight of papal encyclicals. When Filipino writers referred to José Garcia Villa as the “pope of Greenwich Village,” they were only half joking. And here I was, one spring evening in the early 1970s, at Smith’s Bar, a nondescript watering hole in the Village. Once a week, he and his poetry-workshop students from the nearby New School for Social Research would walk over to Smith’s for drinks (a very dry martini in José’s case) and animated, all-night conversations.
New to the city and to the wide precincts of America, I was living with Henry, my oldest brother, now deceased, and his lovely wife, Beatriz. It was they who had brought me to meet José. Nothing remarkable marked that night. Needless to say, I was disappointed. Like any other impressionable young writer meeting a legendary figure, I expected the poet to display verbal pyrotechnics. After all, he was notorious for his withering put-downs, which made me understandably wary, for much as I wished to hear his mots justes—and I did quite often later on—my desire lacked any trace of masochism. He was unfailingly polite that night, no doubt owing to the presence of my brother who, being a filmmaker, had no need for José’s imprimatur and could therefore banter with him. And he was very fond of Beatriz, herself a writer but not a poet.
I don’t remember what I said, or replied, to the questions José put to me—the same sort of questions any fellow expatriate would have asked, out of politeness and friendly curiosity. The following year, I enrolled in his New School course, and having completed that (or “graduated,” a favorite Villa term), I then signed up for the workshop at his apartment in the West Village, and studied with him for close to two more years. To survive and even flourish in José’s workshop, you had to have a strong ego or cultivate one. Little time was spent on niceties. Works that deserved to be killed got killed unceremoniously; words were often exchanged, and not only with fellow students. One got a tangible sense of what worked and what didn’t—above all else, José made clear what rendered lines poetry rather than just chopped-up prose. I didn’t always agree with his critiques, but they were well thought out, even provocative. Moreover, I was a novice; and he, the master. He could be a goad, but mostly he was a catalyst. He had, in sum, a whole lot ofthere there.
José’s apartment was a different story. Unlike the elegance and sensual spareness of his poetry, the flat on Greenwich Street revealed a pack rat. Books, papers, magazines, bric-a-brac of uncommon variety, claimed ever-dwindling space. At one end was a bust of Saint Thérèse, “the Little Flower” of Lisieux. At another was a self-portrait by E. E. Cummings, lending the workshop proceedings a magisterial grace. By the time I studied with him, José had for the most part stopped writing poetry—a fact that didn’t bother me. What he had accomplished and, more importantly, his critical powers were what mattered. Like Laura Riding, whom he greatly admired and who had ceased to write poems shortly after her Collected Poems came out in 1938, he realized that he had reached his poetic limit around the time hisSelected Poems and New was published in 1958. Not wishing to fall into the trap of repeating himself, as, he kept reminding us, he saw other poets doing, he devoted himself to creating a philosophy of poetry and imparting his insights through the workshop. As suddenly as he had burst onto the literary scene, he retreated into relative obscurity, renouncing, as it were, the pomp of the papacy for the ascetic joys of monkhood—except for his daily martini.
Even before he electrified the New York poetry world, Villa had, as an enfant terrible, already blazed a trail through the literary landscape of Manila, scandalizing its bourgeoisie with a series of poems titled Man Songs. It’s easy to see how, for instance, “The Coconut Poem” (written when the poet was seventeen years old) shocked a conservative, heavily Roman Catholic society with its sexual imagery:
The coconuts have ripened,
They are like nipples to the tree.
(A woman has only two nipples,
There are many women-lives in a coconut tree.)
Soon the coconuts will grow heavy and full:
I shall pick one many
Like a child I shall suck their milk,
I shall suck out of coconuts little white songs:
I shall be reminded of many women.
I shall kiss a coconut because it is the nipple of a woman. 1
Considered too erotic, such poems got the novice writer tried and fined by the courts for obscenity and suspended from the state-run University of the Philippines—founded, coincidentally, in 1908, the year of his birth. At the time he was also writing fiction, well enough to win first-prize money in a short story competition, which he used for passage to the United States. In 1930, he enrolled at the University of New Mexico to study medicine and promptly started a literary magazine, Clay. Among the writers he published were Erskine Caldwell, Witter Bynner, William Saroyan, and William Carlos Williams. Villa’s own stories quickly gained the attention of Edward J. O’Brien, who included him in several of his annual Best Short Stories and dedicated the 1932 honor roll to him. In 1933, Scribner’s published a collection of Villa’s stories, Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others. The collection was generally seen as the work of a poetic temperament, with the New York Times noting that Villa “is essentially a poet who has, perhaps, chosen the wrong mode in which to express himself.”
Indeed, shortly after Footnote saw print, Villa decided to concentrate on poetry. (For a time, the young writer had even considered a career as a painter. He would occasionally tell his workshop students that he had had a passion for painting but, unable to afford paint and canvas, dropped the brush in favor of the pen.) By 1933, according to his 1954 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (which he received), “I delved intensively and extensively into English and American poetry, writing a great deal but not publishing any of my works at all.” In retrospect, the defection was inevitable: the best of his stories declare the poet rather than the prose writer, serving as precursors to the poems.
When, in 1942, Viking Press published Have Come, Am Here, marking his American poetry debut, critical praise was immediate and generous. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Peter Monro Jack described Villa’s works as “an astonishing discovery This is a poet of instinctive genius who creates knowingly his own communication.” In a letter to B. W. Huebsch of Viking Press, the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner—who, according to Villa, was the first person to whom he showed his poems—commented, “It is like seeing orchids growing wild to read him Since I met him he seems to have met God; but a God so much in his own image that I am sure no harm can come of the encounter.”
The influential critic Babette Deutsch anointed Villa in the New Republic in 1942 as part of a “small company of religious poets who have been able to communicate their vision. He belongs to the still smaller company of those who have not needed to cry out their doubt.” Writing in the Nation that same year, Marianne Moore described the works as “bravely deep poems,” where “final wisdom encountered in poem after poem merely serves to emphasize the disparity between tumult and stature.”
Have Come, Am Here introduced a new method of rhyming that was mostly overlooked by reviewers—except for Deutsch, who included it in her Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Villa named his innovation “reversed consonance”—used in six of the poems—and explained in a note: “The last sounded consonants of the last syllable, or the last principal consonants of a word, are reversed for the corresponding rhyme. Thus, a rhyme for near would be run; or rain, green, reign. For light—tell, tall, tale, steal, etc.” The opening lines of the first poem in both the original and this edition are a fine example:
It is what I never said, (a) What I’ll always sing— (b) It’s not found in days, (a) It’s what always begins (b)
Have Come is dedicated to Mark Van Doren and E. E. Cummings. The former judged the poems ready for publication when Villa, who had transferred to Columbia University where Van Doren was teaching, showed him the manuscript, while Cummings had written the aforementioned Mr. Huebsch: “It appears through a letter from Mr. Mark Van Doren that you’d like my confidential opinion of a certain manuscript. I very privately do not doubt that Vikings are blueeyed fools if they pass up José Garcia Villa’s cargo.” On publication of Have Come, Am Here, Cummings is reputed to have exclaimed, “and I am alive to find a brave man rediscovers the sky.” By then, Cummings and Villa had been friends a little over a year, Villa a regular visitor to Patchin Place, where Cummings had his pied-à-terre in the Village. According to Villa’s account, the two met because the younger poet wrote to Cummings faithfully, starting in 1938, shortly after he had read Cummings’s Collected Poems. The book led to Villa’s abandonment of the short story to “make poetry my primary instrument.” Though Villa wrote Cummings yearly, the latter never replied until Villa wrote in 1941 “with the threat that, if he did not reply this time, I would never write to him again.” This got the desired response: later that year Villa finally met the poet whose works had meant so much to him, the “man who opened up the world of poetry to me—without the inspiration of his work I probably would never have become a poet.”
Volume Two followed in 1949, in which Villa introduced his “comma poems.” In them, as he puts it, “the commas are an integral and essential part of the medium: regulating the poem’s verbal density and time movement: enabling each word to attain a fuller tonal value, and the line movement to become more measured.” The result, he says, is a “lineal pace of quiet dignity and movement,” with the comma demanding to be, as it were, read between the words. It would be a mistake therefore to think the poems read the same way sans commas—a mistake predicated on the notion that only words can constitute a poem. (In this reissue, the usual space after the comma has been omitted in keeping with Villa’s original design, which had been overlooked in Volume Two and, later, in Selected Poems and New.) To prove his point, Villa included comma-less versions of two poems. Here is the first stanza of one poem, with and without commas:
Lightning. His,under,is,the,socket, 
Much beauty is less than the face of
My dark hero. His under is pure
Lightning. His under is the socket [(130)]
The poet Richard Eberhart endorsed this unorthodox use of the comma, writing Villa on June 26, 1949:
The arbitrary and perfectionist technique (so that not once does the machinery not click or work) of the comma is somehow, I don’t know how, enlivening; it is a trick that refreshes, you know it is a trick and accept it, and in spite of yourself you read right through the commas, so to speak You do not employ trickery for trickery’s sake, in verbal play, but your tricks are a delight to the eye and to the senses: plenty of sense to back up the startlingness.
Villa’s last major publication was Selected Poems and New, in 1958. (There would be other books, notablyParlement of Giraffes and Appassionata, but these were mostly reprints of poems, chosen by Villa himself.) In her preface to Selected Poems, Edith Sitwell states, “I knew that I was seeing for the first time the work of a poet with a great, even an astonishing, and perfectly original gift,” and that his works “are among some of the most beautiful written in our time.”
That Villa succeeded in carving out a space for himself at a time when the New York literary scene was dominated by white writers is nothing short of amazing. A famous Life magazine photograph, taken in 1948 and much remarked upon, concretizes the Asian poet’s arrival in Western literary circles. Celebrated British and American writers pose among the stacks of the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, among them Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and, perched on a ladder, W. H. Auden. On Auden’s right is Villa, peering out calmly at the world. In an essay published in the spring 2004 issue of Melus, “José Garcia Villa and Modernist Orientalism,” Timothy Yu points out that American critics wanted to situate Villa “squarely in the Anglo American poetic canon”—just as the photo did—“satisfying Eliotic demands by positioning his individual talent with regard to a tradition,” one that was then regarded as universal. Indeed, critics remarked on his influences, his antecedents, from the Metaphysical poets to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Cummings—all of whom the poet readily acknowledged, with pride of place given to E. E.
Is there an Orientalist subtext here? Perhaps; Yu certainly thinks so and argues, provocatively and with reason, that “the presence of Villa, an actual Asian subject, as a modernist writer is quite a different kind of subversive Orientalism; he threatens to overturn the Orientalist hierarchy at the heart of modernism, in which classic Asian art and literature provide passive inspiration to a vibrant Western modernism.” There was certainly the awareness that Villa was not native to these shores. For instance, in a March 15, 1946, letter to Villa, after expressing admiration for his poems, Henry Miller wrote, “What amazes me, since you were born in the Philippines, is your deep grasp of English.” In her review cited earlier, Deutsch remarked: “The fact that he is a native of the Philippines who comes to the English language as a stranger may have helped him to his unusual syntax.” Deutsch errs, of course, in believing Villa a “stranger” to the English language—he was, like others of his social class in Manila, multilingual, fluent in Tagalog, Spanish, and English. It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe Deutsch’s comment to anything other than a case of plain ignorance, especially since Deutsch follows that observation with, “But no accident of birth can account for his performance save the ancient ‘poeta nascitur, non fit.’ Even then the adage must be qualified, for though he was undoubtedly born a poet, he has obviously and wisely labored at his art.”
Villa’s English, as with that of writers in India and the Caribbean, was not the English of the colonial masters, but it was English nonetheless, or as critics of postcolonial literature describe it, English with a small e. In claiming an imperial language as his own—as such writers as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov had done—Villa demonstrated how linguistic ownership had nothing to do with borders. There was an accent, sure, but it was that of a prophet. Besides, the syntax of poetry is neither the syntax of ordinary conversation nor that of prose. Villa’s syntax would have been unusual no matter what language he wrote in. He was, after all, an unusual man, one who coined an unusual name for himself: Doveglion—dove, eagle, and lion.
Villa’s meteoric ascent is all the more remarkable given that English had been present in the archipelago only since 1898—brought over by Yankee soldiers during the Spanish-American War, when the Americans easily divested a dying empire of its sole Asian colony. The Yankees, however, had a harder time convincing the islanders that the transfer, like so much chattel from old empire to new, was for the better. The reason was simple: Filipinos had risen against the Iberians in 1896—the first Asian revolution against a Western colonial power—and now, with a revolutionary government under Emilio Aguinaldo, had the Spanish on the ropes, trusting, rather naively, that the United States would help a long-oppressed people throw off their shackles. In a volte-face that betrayed its own revolutionary origins, the United States, as mandated by the 1898 Treaty of Paris, ultimately paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines, with Puerto Rico and Guam also placed under American control. But Filipino resistance was fierce, bloody, and long. The Philippine-American War broke out in 1899 and officially ended in 1902, though clashes in the interior continued for a decade. Grimmer than the better-known, three-month-long Spanish-American conflict, the Philippine-American War resulted in the loss of between at least a quarter of a million and a million mostly civilian lives, while American casualties amounted to more than four thousand dead.
The poet’s father, Dr. Simeon Villa, had been General Aguinaldo’s physician and chief of staff, with the rank of colonel; he did not look too kindly on either the Iberians or the North Americans. Or, for that matter, on his son’s artistic calling. The old man wanted his son to follow him in his profession and also to manage their many real estate holdings in Ermita and Malate, Manila’s fashionable districts. Villa did take medical courses at the University of New Mexico but quickly abandoned his stated goal of becoming a physician, to become, instead, a metaphysician, albeit in verse. In 1943, to the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” Villa quipped, “There is one thing a true poet can not do, and that is tickle frogs.” His decision to be a full-time writer led Colonel Villa to gradually cut off all funds, leading to a permanent estrangement between father and son. In a letter written in Spanish and dated September 5, 1932, the colonel bemoans his prodigal son’s spendthrift ways and castigates him: “If you return here, you will return naturally a zero (0). You left a zero and you will return a zero.” On the rare occasion when the poet did speak of his father, it was always with considerable vitriol. I once asked Villa about the patriarch, whereupon he replied, “If I were to visit his grave, it would only be to spit on it!”
Villa’s success in the metropolitan center—that of his country’s colonizer, no less—elevated further his stature back home, to Olympian proportions. His contemporary, the writer Salvador P. Lopez, described the poet as “the one Filipino writer today who it would be futile to deride and impossible to ignore.” In his introduction to Poems by Doveglion(1941), Lopez wrote that Doveglion is “a continuing vigorous influence in Filipino poetry, and that greatly increases his stature as a creative artist whose instrumental virtuosity, far from showing any signs of deterioration, can be seen to cut more cleanly and more deeply than before.” Lopez, who believed art should possess a proletarian bent and therefore faulted Villa for his disregard of social realities, described Villa nonetheless as, according to Yu, “the patron saint of a cult of rebellious moderns.” Even well into the 1970s, Villa acted as arbiter of what was praiseworthy in contemporary Philippine letters, inclusion in his selections regarded as virtual canonization. In 1973, he was named National Artist for Literature—one of the first awardees for the honor created by the Philippine government.
By then, a corresponding surge in nationalistic fervor, brought about by the repressive, conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda (gleefully dubbed Queen Kong by Villa), had provoked a turn in Philippine literature toward realism and away from art for art’s sake, whose chief proponent since the 1930s had been Villa. With “His” and “Hers” governments, the couple sought to legitimize martial law and their drive for dynastic power as necessary for the New Society, as they called their ostensibly brave remake of an oligarchic, semifeudal society into one that, by being responsive to the needs of the masses, would render superfluous a domestic Communist insurgency. Gilded and glittery, the idea of a New Society was in the end really a fig leaf for unabashed personal ambition.
In such an atmosphere, when armed revolution was a distinct possibility, many of the Manila literati considered Villa irrelevant. But, in “Conversations with José Garcia Villa,” in a 1979 issue of the now-defunct Manila journalArchipelago, poet Cirilo Bautista argues that there were other writers who “looked back to his work in search of an approach to their artistic problem concerning the functional utility of their poetry in the face of the changes being introduced by the New Society. In short, they were re-learning from him, seeking in his work certain aspects that they might have overlooked or ignored earlier.”
Villa’s strategic placement, combined with his eccentric but formidable poetic gifts, helped propel Philippine literature in English out of the swamps of late-nineteenth-century romanticism straight into modernity. Yet his own work, even at its most ascetic, always hints at a full-blooded, albeit quirky, romantic—the sensual animal proud beneath the priestly robes. It is this tension between the sensual and the spiritual that marks his sensibility, an assertion on the literary landscape that was unique, startlingly lyrical, and unapologetically devoid of many of the hallmarks of American poetic modernity; e.g., the conversational tone, the attention paid to the details of quotidian life, the confessional, the unremarkable first line. The external world held little interest for Villa the poet—one didn’t read him to get the “news,” and its lack in his lines was revivifying. If anything, the life evinced by his poems was almost completely interiorized, full of what Hopkins would have termed “inscapes,” a world where the poet proclaims, “Clean,like,iodoform,between,the,tall, / Letters,of,Death,I,see,Life ”  and where the stratagems of a woman’s faith involve:
A fleet of angels, satin-shod;
They kiss like angels, every one,
And poison like an inverted God. 
Villa had no fashionable cause to advance or defend except that of poetry itself. In his hands it evolves into a mighty engine of flight, winged with an exacting spiritual and aesthetic vision and an abundant lyrical gift honed by a keen critical intelligence. Because his poetic sensibility disavows any commingling with that of prose, his works arrive at a nondeclarative, even mystical, meaning, circumventing the prosy pitfalls of narrative to thereby retain a strict poetic purity. His visions can only be uttered in a poet’s tongue, and only in his tongue. They are indeed strange, as anyone speaking in tongues would sound strange, but it is this very strangeness that renders them both astonishing and compelling.
Whenever the poet takes notice of the world, or of certain elements in it, that world, those elements, are seen not for themselves—for in themselves they are unknowable—but as reflections of an imagination that can be surreal: “A radio made of seawater / Will have mermaids for music:” . Or consider these painterly lines, from a poem that Samuel Barber set to music in 1944: “I have observed pink monks eating blue raisins. / And I have observed blue monks eating pink raisins” .
Villa constantly polished his craft, so that his language entertains and illuminates mind, ear, and psyche—qualities rarely seen in the dreary, earnest products churned out by today’s poetry mills. Frequently quoting Mallarmé’s dictum to his students, that poetry “is written not with ideas but with words,” Villa would routinely point to poems in the New Yorker as exemplifying failed poetry, or poetry that never graduated from prose—a charge he would still, I am certain, level against that otherwise exemplary magazine, whose cartoons he cherished and often used to illustrate his points.
He believed fervently in a first line that grabbed the reader’s attention. Without that initial lapel-grabber—what he termed “the coiled cobra”—the poem limps along, unable to vault forward. Once hooked, the reader continues, but the challenge for the poet is to ensure that succeeding lines sustain the initial burst of linguistic energy. Here is a lovely example of how, seemingly effortlessly, the opening line flows into the rest of the stanza:
Be beautiful, noble, like the antique ant,
Who bore the storms as he bore the sun,
Wearing neither gown nor helmet,
Though he was archbishop and soldier:
Wore only his own flesh. 
He was equally insistent that the natural pauses dictated by breath, while valid, were the least interesting means of enjambment. In a 1982 interview with Manila professor and critic Doreen Fernandez, he had this to say: “When your breath pauses, [the line] stops. There is no craft there. Any ignorant person can write like that; a child can write like that Art is craft before it is meaning.” It took craft to control the musical flow, from line to line, from stanza to stanza. And even within the line, a poet could regulate movement and tone through, for instance, Villa’s Duo-Technique—an innovation John Edwin Cowen, his literary trustee and former student, explains, along with poetic aphorisms Villa called Xocerisms (some of which are included here), in an editor’s note at the end of this book.
Those may find him difficult, then, who expect of poetry convenient homilies, the exposition of ideas, narrative meaning, and self-expression. He is cerebral but also celebratory and witty, especially in his aphorisms; e.g., “Skies,are,written / Because,poems,are,born” and “The,pleasure,of,history, / Is,its,knack,of, being,late: / To,arrive,a,ghost: / Or,the,metaphysics,of,success.” Especially in his Divine Poems, his work pays homage to the mystery of being while speaking its language:
In “The Anchored Angel,” in my estimation a great poem, we witness a peerless musicality, muscular language, startling imagery, and a fusion of transcendent and erotic love. Here is the opening stanza:
The poem ends with the stunning and iconoclastic portrait of a complete Messiah: “Through,whose,huge,discalced,arable,love, / Bloodblazes,oh,Christ’s,gentle,egg: His,terrific,sperm.”
The Divine Poems call forth a metaphysical realm in which God needs us as much as we need God. To paraphrase Voltaire, if one didn’t exist, the other would have had to invent him. The Villa-esque Divine and Supreme Being differs from the God of, say, John Donne, an overwhelming force that clearly can dispense with humanity. When Donne writes, “Batter me, three-person’d God ,” he assumes a supplicant’s pose. In contrast, Villa’s relationship with God is intimate and familial. Poem 60, where the poet and God joust, ends on a fraternal note:
Then He pushes me and I plunge down, down!
And when He comes to help me up
I put my arms around Him, saying, “Brother,
Brother.” This is the way we are.
Humanizing God at the same time that he renders the human divine, the poet enables us to view God as a historical rather than ahistorical primal force. Villa’s God, with whom he wrestles, argues, talks, and plays, could be reasonably interpreted as the idea of America, a kind of promised land where the poet could find liberation from an oppressive society and a domineering father, to replace—though never completely—Old World / Old Testament contexts with New World / New Testament ones. It is a relationship that is not only paternal but, as I have pointed out, fraternal as well, with ironic echoes of that patronizing phrase, “little brown brothers,” with which American colonial administrators described Filipinos. America needed Villa the poet to ground itself in human values, a partnership that erects a “kinetic balance and dignity” and allows the man/poet to take aim at the Fountainhead with a bow and arrow. When asked why, he declares:
“I will not
Murder thee! I do but
Measure thee. Hold
Thy peace.” And this I did.
But I was curious
Of this so regal head.
“Give thy name”—“Sir! Genius!” 
My hope is that, on the centennial of his birth, this reissuance of José Garcia Villa’s poems will accelerate the growing revival of interest in his work. There is no question that he deserves a place in the pantheon of American literature, a fact Conrad Aiken recognized when he included eight of Villa’s works in his 1944 Modern Library anthology, Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Sadly, most current American poetry anthologies exclude him, rendering this Penguin edition all the more valuable.
And he belongs as well to the pantheon of Asian American literature. Prior to Juliana Chang’s 1996 anthology,Quiet Fire, Asian American poetry collections simply ignored him—he is, for instance, glaringly absent from the landmark 1974 anthology AIIIEEEEE!, while his contemporary Carlos Bulosan, who wrote mesmerizingly on the travails of the Filipino immigrant, was included, and rightfully so. It is true that Villa deliberately avoided any references to his ethnicity, or to his own experience as a person of color in the United States (though in private he complained about being paid less than other writing instructors at the New School and at one point contemplated taking legal action). Taken to task for his insistent desire to be regarded as “universal”—he was, after all, a creature of his age—wherein “universal” was synonymous with the Western tradition, still he felt no obligation to display in his art overt signs of his situation in the world, believing that that was irrelevant and, moreover, lay in the province of prose.
Clearly, political correctness trumped literature, the argument being that if Villa didn’t care for such a category, why should its self-appointed guardians care for him? This is not an argument of course but a snub, and for ill-conceived reasons, unwittingly reinforcing the way in which the mainstream has historically boxed in, or ghettoized, writers of color. Contemporary Asian American poets, thankfully insistent on their full rights as citizens of the republic of poetry, are as likely to write on topics that have nothing to do with their historical condition as they are to dwell on it. In this, too, Villa was a pioneer.
In the end, what should matter most is what mattered to Villa: the words themselves, unmediated except by the reader’s own perceptions. Villa’s music, language, imagery, and versification mesh in a totality that is deeply pleasurable and magical, with an adamantine beauty that simultaneously cuts and illuminates. These poems ensorcell, and I have no doubt they will ensorcell for a very long time to come.
My heartfelt thanks to David Joel Friedman, Eugene Gloria, and John Edwin Cowen—fine poets all—for their insightful comments on this introduction as it was taking shape. Additionally, John, as Villa’s literary trustee, provided me with copies of relevant material such as letters and reviews that proved indispensable in contextualizing Villa’s creations.
LUIS H. FRANCIA
New York City
Have Come, Am Here
from Volume Two
from Selected Poems and New
New Poems and Adaptations
from Appassionata: Poems in Praise of Love
Duo-Technique and Xocerisms
Duo-Technique Poems and Adaptations