Jeff Tagami: Poet of the Pajaro Valley

I just read about Jeff Tagami’s death on FB , and I’m still in shock. I wrote a brief piece about him for the wall panel on Filipino American writers for the Filipino Voices exhibit (ongoing at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas); and a couple months ago, I tried to get in touch with him for a possible appearance at the exhibit. He did not reply, and now I understand why.

I believe that he has been a very important voice in Filipino American poetry — one that deserved much more attention. Long ago, when I was just learning to write, I met Jeff Tagami and Shirley Ancheta (both excellent poets) at a reading at the Capitola Book Cafe, and the two (along with Catie Cariaga) introduced me to the writers at BAPAW (Bay Area Pilipino American Writers) and Kearney St. Workshop.

For one semester, Jeff and I both taught in the same department at UCSC, and at one point I worked with Jeff and Shirley and couple other poets on a prison poetry project, reading poems written by prisoners incarcerated in San Quentin. An essay I wrote about Bulosan and Tagami was published in the journal, Critical Mass (Spr 1995).

Jeff grew up in the Pajaro Valley, and worked in its agricultural fields. He wrote with compassion and lyricism about the lives of the workers. His poems chronicle some of the darkest moments in Filipino American history, at times with bitterness and irony. And yet he also captured moments of quiet beauty. Jeff himself was quiet and understated about his own writing, yet he was also fiercely supportive of poets—their right to be paid well for doing public readings, for example.

Meeting Jeff and Shirley and the BAPAW group really changed the direction of my writing, and opened my eyes to the history and ongoing creativity and struggles of Filipino American writers. They also introduced me to the haunted history of Filipino Americans in the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys, pointing out to me, for example, where Fermin Tobera was murdered, and where stories and spirits linger in the rolling hills and agricultural fields of the area.

I live in Elkhorn, now (North Monterey County) surrounded by agricultural fields. Driving by the workers every day, seeing the dust rise from the tractors, and the patterns formed by the spray of water from the irrigation pipes, I can’t help but think of Jeff’s poems.