The Gangster We Are All Looking For: Jessica Hagedorn

In the wake of National Poetry Month (April) and in celebration of Asian American Heritage Month (May), here is an excerpt from my book, Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America (Duke University Press, 2016), and the chapter on Jessica Hagedorn‘s early poetry and performance in 1970s San Francisco. Enjoy!

Balance - TRCover


In post-World War II San Francisco, art and politics had crystallized into various popular local forms. The 1963 Freeway reading at the Old Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco’s Tenderloin marked a certain era of West Coast poetry when writers occupied “both the City and the country.” The 1955 North Beach gallery reading, when a cadre of young writers, dubbed the Beats by Kenneth Rexroth, became the canonized poets of their era. According to writer & independent publisher Stephen Vincent, during this time:

The lone poet as performer and evangelist of personal, social, and political change had been replaced by the rock star and the group. Country Joe & the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead…had clearly taken their impetus from the poets. But more than the loss of an audience to music or to the technologies of sounds and rhythms, the new emphasis was on experiences that were essentially nonverbal.”[i]

By the early 1970s, however, the explosive events of college student strikes for Ethnic Studies and the Free Speech Movement; militant nationalist groups’ revolutionary politics; and anti-war demonstrations drew attention back to the importance of language, whether in upholding the status quo or in exacting social and cultural change. In an era of FBI covert intelligence operations and Washington scandals such as Watergate, semantics played a crucial role in envisioning a political path and future. And, while a number of self-named “Third World” writers labored to publish their work, it was mainly through the event of the “poetry reading”—as with the political rally—that minority artists expressed a sense of urgency and need for unmediated presence through live proclamations and performance.


Flyer courtesy Found SF online digital archive

With this new generation of writers came a new set of performance poetics: bi-lingual and bi-cultural poems; declarative or sing-song syncopated delivery; the look and fashion of a new urban bohemia inspired by the sounds of popular and avant-garde musical artists—Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and the style of leading political figures—Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords. This Third World literary renaissance took shape not only in San Francisco but, also, in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. As writer and critic Thulani Davis remembers, with their “sounds, tones, cries, songs even noises” invoking “recent and distant people and events,” “[P]oets made conscious efforts to reach people who listened to music more often than they read books.”[ii]

AngelouWilliamsGlide - 1974

     Maya Angelou & Cecil Williams (Glide Memorial Church, 1974), photo from Calisphere

Immigrating to San Francisco in 1961 and mentored by Kenneth Rexroth in her early career, Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn found artistic kinship with contemporaries such as Nuyorican poet Victor Hernandez Cruz and African American playwright Ntozake Shange. Each writer brought music and words together in their respective styles of tropicalizations[iii], choreo-poems, and rock n’ roll poetry. As the publisher’s note on the inside front cover of Hagedorn’s first edited collection, Dangerous Music, observes, “Her childhood in the Philippines and addiction to rock n’ roll and black soul music made for the tense lyric beauty in poems about her ambiguous arrival and coming of age in America.” Yet, as the opening statement of critic Kathy Mackay’s 1976 review elucidates, —“Would you believe Smokey Robinson as the inspiration behind a poem about a teen-aged Filipina?”—these musical traces require that we disobediently listen to the oft-forgotten historical relations between the US and Philippines.[iv]

Dangerous Music

Filled with scenes of concert-going and radio listening in cities, these early Hagedorn poems serve as a soundtrack for what Martin Joseph Ponce has termed as the “counter-assimilationist immigrant narrative” in her work—a particular rendition of Filipino immigration, one that rejects “de-ethnicization, upward mobility, and nuclear family-hood” and acknowledges US pop culture and music’s influence as beginning in the Philippines itself.[v]

Throughout the collection, Hagedorn invokes Latin jazz and African American musical artists—La Lupe, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Jimi Hendrix, to name a few—as well as scenes of listening—to radios in San Francisco bedrooms, to DJs on Manila dance floors, and in New York City bars. The newly immigrated poet does not (and cannot) easily abandon her memories for the promise of assimilating into her new country, especially when the soundtracks of these two places are parallel. Instead, through her writing and performance, she musically maps an urban itinerary of Filipino America.


Hagedorn - 1975

Jessica Hagedorn (photo by Nancy Wong, © 1975)

Coming of age in 1960s San Francisco, live concerts constituted Hagedorn’s informal rock n’ roll curriculum.[vi] Steeped in both this makeshift education and her formal enrollment in the American Conservatory Theatre’s (A.C.T.) two-year acting program, Hagedorn began experimenting with poetry performances. At first it was nothing elaborate, she recalls: “it would just be me reciting my poetry and, let’s say, a saxophone player or a guitar player…or rhythm players, percussionists and such.”[vii] As time went on, and inspired by Sun Ra’s staged spectacles and her own collaborations with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Hagedorn began to imagine a performance style that might effectively synthesize poetry, music, and theatre. In the latter half of 1974, she “started putting out feelers” to her amateur and professional musician friends and, over the next few months, gathered an impressive posse.[viii]

Not to be reproduced in any form without written permission in advance from: Rights and Reproductions The Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley, CA 94720-6000 Please refer to filename For more information:

Photo courtesy The Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley), Jessica Hagedorn Papers (1974-2000)

Conducted by jazz trombonist Julian Priester, the then-unnamed group included Makoto Horiuchi (guitar), Bob Marshall (drums), and a vocal trio, the Gangsterettes, which featured R&B singer Ota Pierce, former KPFA reporter Norman Jayo, and Linda Tillery of the Bay Area rock/soul jam band, The Loading Zone. The process of composing music was mainly a two-way collaboration between Hagedorn and Priester, one that relied upon artistic “shorthand” crafted between a determined poet’s musical ear and a composer-musician’s ability to interpret the lyrics’ necessary “moods.”[ix]

Thanks to the foresight of San Francisco State University (SFSU) Poetry Center organizers, the very first Gangster Choir performance in 1975 was captured on VHS and cassette tape. Some of the evening’s a capella pieces consisted solely of voices—Hagedorn’s lilting intonation in concert with the Gangsterettes’ three-part harmonies. Others involved more intricate choral and instrumental arrangements—with the poets’ spoken words riding on top of the musicians’ funky bass lines, Afro-Caribbean beats, and vamping piano chords, while the trio’s polyvocal chorus echoed some of the poems’ most striking images. Drawn mainly from poems in Hagedorn’s first collection, the songs followed two main thematic trajectories—vivid portraits of her former home (Manila) and her keen observations on life in her new home (America). In her poetic imagery, however, there is a thin line between memory and the present, between “right here” and “over there.” Set to Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh, Baby Baby,” Hagedorn quips to a fellow teenage immigrant who “remembers Quiapo Church and eating roasted pig in Manila,” who escaped the rural town of Stockton, California by running away to San Francisco where she could “go to the Cow Palace and catch Smokey Robinson”—

Hey Nellie…you remember the barrios and how it’s all the same: Manila, the Mission, Chinatown, Harlem, L.A., Kearny Street, the Fillmore.

Here, Hagedorn’s song underscores and renders anew the Third World movement’s trope of “internal colonies,” the barrios and ghettos that connect immigrant’s lives, at home and abroad, the “right here” and the “over there.”





Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America




[i] Vincent, Stephen. The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language and Performance (Momo’s Press, 1981), 33

[ii] Davis, Thulani Nkabinde. “Known Renegades: Recent Black/Brown/Yellow” in The Poetry Reading, 75.

[iii] I use the term “tropicalization” as a nod to Frances Aparicio and Susana Chavez Silverman’s definition (and work): “To tropicalize […] means to trope, to imbue a particular space, geography, group or nation with a set of traits, images, and values.” See their introduction to the edited collection, Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad. (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College Press, 1997). Likewise, it is the title of an earlier poetry collection by Victor Hernandez Cruz. See Tropicalization (New York: Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications Co., 1976).

[iv] Mackay, Kathy. “A Diverse and Inspired Group.” San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle (February 8, 1976).

[v] Ponce, Martin Joseph. “The Cross-Cultural Musics of Jessica Hagedorn’s Postmodernism” in Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2012), 124-128.

[vi] With easy access to the Fillmore Auditorium and Great American Music Hall, the young writer checked out shows by the day’s legendary artists, from rock gods—Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin—to R&B and soul’s finest—Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Big Mama Thornton, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles—paying attention to each artist’s staging and showmanship.

[vii] Author’s interview with Jessica Hagedorn (October 10, 2009).

[viii] As Hagedorn herself wrote, “The concept of the Gangster Choir—shades of the old ‘Doo-Wop’ school, Smokey Robinson, the Flamingoes, some Hector Lavoe chanting, always the tropics lurking in the background, the way we sing, the way we put it out there, the message in the music. The poetics of our lives, this is what I am interested in. It’s already been monumentalized in what critics snidely refer to as ‘pop’ music—but very little has been said about poets doing it for themselves. There were those beatniks talking about urban madonnas, but that was an elite and very white cult of people.”

[ix] As Hagedorn recalls, this shorthand often took the form of simply telling Priester, “Here are the lyrics. I’m hearing something like…an ominous groove.” (from author’s interview with Jessica Hagedorn, October 2009).