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For Chris Santiago, poetry emerges from foreign language, immigrant history, and weird job experiences

Author Chris Santiago

Author Chris Santiago

“Every writer should live abroad to be out of your language and your comfort zone,” says poet Chris Santiago. “You really see where you’re from when you leave it.”

The Bloomington-based poet speaks from experience. Santiago’s travels throughout Southeast Asia were among the influences for his debut poetry novel, Tula, which was published in December.

“You’re very aware of your body when you’re traveling, right? I was really very physically in the world, seeing things and doing things, but not in language,” says Santiago. He spent a lot of time listening to the sounds of words, filing his experiences away. Later, they bubbled up into poems.

Living “in language” and “out of language” is not just a philosophical description for Santiago, whose parents immigrated to Minnesota from the Philippines. He grew up hearing — but not mastering — the two native dialects spoken by his mother and father. Couple that with a background in percussion, and you get a poet who thinks a lot about sound and word play. For example, “tula” means “poem” in his father’s native Tagalog. More than one “tula” is “tulong.” That word sounds like “too long” in English, and yes, Santiago plays with that in his writing.

Travel and language aren’t his only inspirations; his packed resume influences his work, too. “I have a lot of weird experiences to draw from,” he jokes, listing off the odd series of jobs he worked in the Hollywood area before he earned his PhD in English. He’s been a go-for at Miramax films, copied scripts, taught kindergarten, and worked the graveyard shift editing press releases.

“I pulled a chair out for Richard Gere once,” Santiago says, laughing.

He was thrilled when an assistant professor job at the University of St. Thomas brought him back to the Twin Cities.

Santiago’s work is also touchingly rooted in the experiences of his family, especially his two sons. His opening poem begins with him goofing around with his young son and morphs into experiences of the racism he encountered with his own father. Other poems speak to his three uncles, who fought against the brutal Marcos regime in the Philippines.

“I’ve been thinking about [my uncles] lately,” says Santiago, “and how they literally had life-and-death courage to face up to things they disagree with.”

So, what is a poet to do during politically divisive times? For Santiago, the answer is to look back to the “parts of history that people don’t know very much about. Some of those mistakes that were made are mistakes that we’re making again… [In telling stories], at least people can think, ‘Oh you know what? Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to incarcerate Japanese Americans,’” he says.

Santiago will be kicking off the University of St. Thomas’ National Poetry Month Celebration. The week’s reading is free and open to the public, and takes place Tuesday, April 4 from 7 to 8 p.m. at the O’Shaughnessey-Frey Library at St. Thomas.