Al Robles at a reading. Photo credit: Curtis Choy.

It has been over a year since Bay Area poet/community activist Al Robles passed away and a gaping hole is still left in the fabric that was and is the Bay Area Asian American community. The first time I heard about Al was when I took one of the first Asian American creative writing classes in the country with Professor Jeffrey Paul Chan at San Francisco State University. In that class was poet George Leong, filmmaker Curtis Choy, Russell Leong, Laureen Chew (now a Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University) and Russell Robles, Al’s brother. He told us in class, “My brother Al is a poet, too. He’s in Japan now studying zen meditation at a temple.” The last time I saw Al was in Seattle in early 2009 with California poet/friends Jeff Tagami and Shirley Ancheta over plates of baby bok choy with garlic, Rock Cod with ginger and salt and pepper tofu at Hing Loon. They were all in town to spend a week with students at a local university. As we ate and chuckled about old days, the phone rang. A student at the university wanted to know if Al Robles was around. They needed him to help introduce a screening of “The Fall of the I-Hotel”, a documentary film by Curtis Choy who would later go on to make a film about Al himself. Al grinned to us in a conspiring smile wet with rice and soy sauce sprinkled around his moustache and whispered, “Tell em’ I’m not here!” Al was an amazing presence and if you ever heard him read his poetry live, it would move you. You could swear you were hearing the voice/songs of manongs (term meaning “older brother” in Ilocano) and the history of their lives in this country coming through his voice. Al was one of those guys who you could never tell how old he was. To me, he looked perrenially 60 years-old even when I first met him in San Francisco when he was in his thirties. There will be a lot of tributes written about Al and the scholars will, too, write about his place in history.

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