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San Diego has a new poet laureate. But he sees you as the voice of the city.

Jason Magabo Perez, the city of San Diego's new poet laureate, poses in front of a mural on Thursday.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jason Magabo Perez’s work as a writer and teacher has prepared him for what he wants to accomplish in the role: finding voices and offering people the tools to tell their own stories.

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To borrow from Shakespeare: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Meet Jason Magabo Perez, poet laureate.

He’s proud of his new job with the city of San Diego, a two-year appointment to write poems, hold workshops, add to the cultural richness here. “It’s affirming,” he said. “I’ve done this work for so long.”

But the 41-year-old college professor is also suspicious of things that reek of authority, of the idea that, as poet laureate, he has all the answers.

“I have a lot of love for the city and the communities of the city, and that’s what I’m excited about with this position,” he said. “But I’m not the voice of San Diego.”

The voices, he said, are already here. He sees his job as finding them, listening to them, offering them some tools to tell their stories, if they want to.

Poetry predates writing, and poets laureate date back thousands of years, to Greco-Roman times. The general idea has always been the same: to celebrate verse and its most talented practitioners, and to bring more people inside its sometimes bewildering tent.

In the United States, the librarian of Congress has been appointing a poet laureate since the 1930s. The current one is Ada Limón. Past laureates include Billy Collins, Tracy K. Smith and Juan Felipe Herrera, who spent some of his formative years in San Diego and once described his chosen art form this way in an interview with the Union-Tribune: “A poem is a like a rocket, and the words are the boosters. After it’s launched, the words fall away, and something else goes on. It gets very intimate. Something bigger happens.”

In San Diego, poetry has long flourished in various pockets, encompassing all kinds of material. Spoken word performances in cafes. Writing classes. An annual anthology. Readings by authors in bookstores. Poetry slams.

“I think that poetry is everywhere,” Perez said. “It’s a way of knowing, a way of witnessing the world, documenting and reflecting on the world. And also sort of envisioning a future through language.”

It took him a while to see his own future. Born in Detroit, the son of Filipino immigrants, he spent his teen years in Oceanside and went to UC San Diego, where he started out as a math major. A difficult upper-division class in that field convinced him to look elsewhere. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science.

On campus, he also was involved in social-justice campaigns. Standing up for immigrant communities targeted in the aftermath of 9/11. Pushing for a more-diverse student body. Calling for better wages for the janitors on campus.

He and his friends needed an outlet to sort through their thoughts and feelings, to articulate their hopes and dreams. They found it in open mic nights at local coffee houses.

“That’s where my love of poetry came about, because ultimately it was a love of community,” Perez said. “It was a space for us to build community through language, and that was probably the most exciting and joyful part for me. It was knowing that it was a space where we could care about each other, where we could debate, build ideas and think about the future.

“I continue to tie my practice to community building.”

His mother’s story

Jason Magabo Perez holds a notebook, which he carries with him everywhere
Jason Magabo Perez holds a notebook, which he carries with him everywhere, to record the inspiration he runs into throughout the day.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Perez also got a master’s degree in ethnic studies and a dual doctorate in ethnic studies and communication, both at UCSD. He taught at local universities and community colleges and is now an associate professor and director of the ethnic studies program at Cal State San Marcos.

The Clairemont resident is the author of two hybrid collections of prose and poetry, “Phenomenology of Superhero” (2013) and “This is for the Mostless” (2017). His writing has also appeared in numerous literary publications.

He’s written and performed multimedia pieces that combine poetry, prose, video, oral history and other elements at colleges, libraries, museums, and festivals.

“Jason Magabo Perez is a champion for the art of poetry,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said in announcing the poet laureate appointment. “His work is profound, innovative and uncompromising.”

Much of that work is animated by something that happened to his mother almost 50 years ago.

Leonora Perez was a nurse at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1975 when some three-dozen patients in the intensive-care unit suffered respiratory problems. Ten of them died.

After a 10-month investigation, the FBI arrested Perez and another nurse and accused them of injecting a muscle relaxant into the patients’ IV tubes. They were charged with murder, poisoning and conspiracy.

The case drew national media coverage and triggered protests by groups of nurses and Filipino Americans, who said the two women were scapegoated because of their race.

In July 1977, after an 18-week trial and 15 days of deliberations, the jury convicted the two nurses of three counts of poisoning and one count of conspiracy. They faced sentences of life in prison.

Five months later, the judge granted a defense motion for a new trial. “The Court finds that the overwhelming prejudice to the defendants arising from the government’s persistent misconduct prevented the jurors from receiving the case free from taint,” he wrote.

The case was dropped and the nurses freed.

Jason Magabo Perez hadn’t been born when all this unfolded. His first exposure to it came when he was 3. His parents showed him film footage of one of the protests, projected onto a wrinkled bed sheet thumb-tacked to a wall.

“All I could comprehend,” he later wrote, “was that something bad had happened to our mother. Something unthinkable. Something unspeakable.”

Asking questions

One of the first poems Perez wrote in college was called “Dear Mr. Yanko,” a letter to the lawyer who prosecuted his mom. Another of his poems is called “My Mother’s Story.”

His doctoral dissertation is a 232-page reflection on the court case and its aftermath, on the way it has haunted his family and the Filipino American community.

Examining two books and a documentary film that were done on the case, he wrestles with questions about how narratives get constructed, and why, and what the framing does to our understanding of the events.

How do we know what we know? What aren’t we hearing? Who gets to tell your story?

Asking questions will be a big part of what he does as poet laureate, Perez said. He believes in collaboration, in experimentation, in a “radical openness” that eschews rules about poetic structure, tradition, methods and pedigree.

“I just want to break all that open,” he said. “I think folks can cultivate a very intentional and joyful and empowered relationship with language, and that’s the base from which writing comes about.”

He is the city’s second poet laureate, succeeding Ron Salisbury, whose tenure included two major projects: “Poetry of Resilience,” which showcased poets from around San Diego, and the “Poetry Together Challenge,” which invited residents to respond in verse to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perez is mulling what projects he will pursue. He said he’s been inspired by the late poet June Jordan, who started the “Poetry for the People” workshop at UC Berkeley.

“On one hand, I want to support the poetry communities that are doing the work, that have been here for so long,” Perez said. “But on the other hand, I want to reach those communities who might feel super-alienated by poetry.”

His is a crown he’s willing — no, eager — to share.

I have a lot of love for the city and the communities of the city, and that’s what I’m excited about with this position. But I’m not the voice of San Diego.

— Jason Magabo Perez, San Diego’s new poet laureate

— ◆ —

We Draft Work Songs for This City

by Jason Magabo Perez

This poem was performed at San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s State of The City Address at the San Diego Civic Theatre on Jan.11, 2023.

whenever we stretch grammars of worry past the Pacific
whenever another blackout gifts us much needed stillness

whenever the surrender of this quiet is typhoon enough we
draft work songs for this city mighty we of rough draft

futures mighty we in river-mouth of rush hour traffic we
of protest chant & scrapyard syntax we draft on the corner

of Black Mountain & Mira Mesa here on a sidewalk of torn
shoelaces & lost grocery lists we draft blueprints for survival

we survive on the smell of beef broth the smell of basil of
turmeric of cilantro of carne asada of freshly cooked rice

of steamed bok choy of freshwater fish of deep-fried rice
paper we work song at this bus stop for students we work

song at this bus stop for tech workers this bus stop for lolas
y abuelitas we work song in tin drum glottal syllables of

distant motherlands we draft litanies at every streetlight
altar we draft verse on napkins & reused plastic grocery

bags wherever there are elders playing chess & waxing
geographic outside the donut shop whenever much needed

stillness promises a new hour whenever the Pacific knows
to rupture the shoreline whenever typhoon is fractal hum in

chest we draft work songs for this city we raw material
literatures we distillation of afterdreams we swapmeet

philosophers we draft work songs on the corner of Genesee
& Clairemont Mesa we draft of gutters scattered with pink

boba straws & dried palm leaves we draft for mothers & children
hustling bouquets of carnations from the bicycle lane we draft

for parolees in orange vests selling local tribunes from the center
island we draft on Murray Ridge where a family sells roses &

chocolate from a white bucket whenever the small hour calls
collect whenever ruptures in the line set us free whenever hum

in chest arrives as ghost in throat we draft work songs we whose
hands wash sky we who grow gardens & gardens against worry

we whose mighty ache remakes history we draft work songs here
in the alley off University behind 49th we draft of a perfectly

reusable red plastic slide of a car full of birthday balloons of a
small hill of middle grade paperbacks a gold purse full of fresh

broccoli & rubber gloves a black tote bag stuffed with wet lettuce
& white surgical masks we draft at the backyard family parties

& block-wide barbecues we work song where it smells of fresh
tires & flour tortillas where dried lemon rinds stick to pavement

work song of cleaned chicken bone wrapped in foil work song of
rainsoaked boxsprings work song for the infamous hot cheetos

burrito brushfire fabulous work song work song on the graveyard
shift survivor song song of the parking lot nail salon work song

of the underfuture heavenly pho outside between two buildings
work song we draft as patrol cars cram the alley we draft as protest

medics cram the alley we draft as Muslim cabbies double-park their
Priuses outside the mosque outside the taqueria work song of a child

chasing mosquitos with a hammer wherever a community of uncles
gathers in the shared parking lot of the banh mi shop & Somali

restaurant wherever we feel that lived intensity of interior traffic here
sings the lettuce-picker here sings the strawberry-picker here sings

the bellhop the postal worker the custodian the hotel maid grounds-
keeper landscaper gardener construction worker nurse teacher waiter

dishwasher bus driver grocer labor organizer mechanic therapist here
sings the nanny here sings the refugee here sings the Native here sings

the migrant O, what work! O, what song! O, what city! when our utterance
is archive when there is historical reckoning when we demand nothing

short of collective joy & here we are on Native land we draft work songs for
this city we draft work songs for this city we draft work songs for this city

Courtesy of Jason Magabo Perez and San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture

Updates

10:13 a.m. Jan. 23, 2023: Story was updated to fix a typo and to add information about academic achievements.


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