Hugo House instructor Aimee Suzara is a Filipino American poet, playwright, and performer based in Oakland, CA. She’s the author of the poetry collection Souvenir, which was a Finalist for the WILLA Award in 2015, as well as the plays A History of the Body and Tiny Fires, both of which were selected as finalists for the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival.
Aimee’s mission as an artist and teacher is to create—and help others create—poetic and theatrical works about race, gender, and the body as a way of encouraging dialogue and fomenting social change. Starting September 23, 2021, Aimee will be leading Movements and Moments, a six-session online class exploring poetry for social action. We caught up with her earlier this year to learn more about her path as a writer; her class on race, history, and the body; and more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to poetry and playwriting in particular?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was a child, I wrote my first poems and participated in plays. I minored in creative writing in the 1990s at UC Berkeley, where I studied under Ishmael Reed and witnessed June Jordan and her students performing at Poetry for the People open mics. But my sense of writing, of poetry, as an important tool for social change became most urgent after college.
After spending seven months in the Philippines, visiting former US military bases where local community members suffered from toxic waste-related illnesses and poverty, strip clubs, and prostitution rings were rampant, I began writing about the environmental injustices I saw there. I had lived with a six-year-old girl who died from a type of leukemia linked to the particular toxins found in her community, and had to tell her story.
When I returned, I performed my poems at protests and rallies. In 2002, there were frequent antiwar protests as well as protests supporting the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico, against US military bomb testing. Performing was a method for showing solidarity and crafting my poetry for the stage. I became a part of a performing group, Dancers Without Borders, which blended dance theater, song, and poetry, and we also performed many rallies and community events; I began teaching spoken word through organizations like Art in Action and Youth Speaks.
While I was completing my MFA in poetry at Mills College, I had the opportunity to take some playwriting and solo performance classes, and fell in love with it. Since I had been performing on stages and working with young people to make theatrical work, it was a natural direction to want to create my own work for the stage. This is when writing for the body became very evident—in creating work that was meant to be performed, often I found myself integrating movement, dance, projections, music, all of these very immersive and physical means of presenting work. Spoken word itself is a physical offering of poetry, but theater allowed me to expand on this magic even further.
Since that time, I’ve been writing, performing in, and co-producing plays and interdisciplinary theater, independently or in collaboration with others such as the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and Thirdroot Productions, hosted by programs like Playground SF and staged by theaters and small companies—from Bindlestiff Studios to Ubuntu Theater to Cutting Ball Theater and Custom Made Theater. I’ve been a performing writer in collaboration with dance theater companies Deep Waters Dance Theater and Ramon Alayo Dance Theater, as well as with musicians such as Kronos Quartet and Living Earth Show. I’ve been blessed to blend teaching and sharing my work through residencies such as CalShakes Artist-Investigator project and the Instant Plays Festival at Whitman College in Washington.
How does your work as a playwright and performer inform your work as a poet (and vice versa)?
They definitely influence one another and appear in one another. My earlier work for the stage, as mentioned, included solo performance, which was very poetic; when invited to perform poetry sets, I often wove them together, created staging and used props, lighting, and gesture. The intersection between these art forms creates so much possibility.
In a current project, a play about Sappho (a modernized, adapted version), the ancient Greek poetess, poetry appears in the speech of the actors, as it should. Poetry was originally oral tradition anyway, and shares so much with music and theater. When teaching poetry, I always include a blend of performing poets along with those who focus primarily on the page.
Poetry can be written and performed with all the ranges of emotion possible. A quietly delivered line can strike the heart as, or even more, intensely as a loud one. It is all about paying attention to the body, and the possibilities of the body. Further, if a poem really is intended to “live” primarily on the page and the poet does not want to put it in any performed context, I would argue that it is still performing—from the page. In that way, we can think of the page as a canvas or a stage in itself, with strokes and lines and textures that the reader takes in when reading or looking at the work.
Your upcoming class, Race, History & the Body, focuses on how writers can document, perform, and resist through writing. What are some ways that you embrace resistance in your own writing practice?
Poetry has always been a form of resistance to systems, a method of crying out against injustice, or even just an expression of something deeply held and urgently needing to be shared. As an art form, poetry is essential to movements. At rallies, the most memorable slogans are poetic. Signs and murals contain poetry. Songs are poetry put to instrumentation, and songs have always been methods for naming injustices or calling for change. Many have organized blogs or made anthologies of poetry in response to current events. And because the personal IS political, just the act of writing is an act of resistance.
Out “there” in mainstream media and literature, and in the literary canon that for so long has dominated the curriculum in the United States, my stories, my voice, and my identity are not celebrated fully in a nuanced way—and I mean me as a woman, a person of color, a brown-skinned person, a queer person, a mother, a woman in my 40s, a daughter of immigrants, a poet, a thinker, an educator—and this is why I must write. If I do not, who will? If I do not, I know that others will write me wrongly or write me out. The act of writing is an act of asserting that I exist, and others like me exist, too. It is also, in these days, an act against capitalism, against the monetization of time, against the loss of ourselves into the machine that would have us forget who we are and where we come from and what we believe. Audre Lorde so poignantly said that “the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak” and this is still true today.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
I am passionate about what I teach; I offer you my enthusiasm and my genuine interest in you finding your own passions. I enjoy reading and encouraging students’ works in online classes, as well as engaging with informal commentary and freewriting in response to the prompts and readings. I will gently challenge you, especially if you fade away in class, to contribute without worrying about judgment or criticism.
Toward that kind of environment, we begin with class agreements that you can review and add to, generating your own. I often give extra / optional readings, links, or prompts to expand if you are interested in going beyond what’s there, and welcome you to ask for more. Participants in an online environment will often get out of it as much as they can put into it, and I always encourage folks to communicate if they are falling behind or will miss a deadline, especially when it’s asynchronous.
What are three things you hope students will take away from the class?
1. A deeper exploration of the topics Race, History, and the Body as pertains to themselves, the authors, and the world around them. A sense of how these three concepts relate to one another.
2. Lots of freewriting, rough drafts, and perhaps a more complete draft or two of something you will take further.
3. A sense of connection and community with one another and me.
Want to take a class with Aimee? She’ll be teaching Movements and Moments starting September 23, 2021. Learn more »