Tony Robles, 'Filipino Building Maintenance Company' (Poor Press Publications, 2009)

Last weekend, I participated in a spectacle of a Filipino American History event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where, for the entire day, admission was free courtesy of Target Stores. Interesting, this corporate support of an otherwise invisible but ubiquitous population and our obscure commemorative month. In the noisy museum lobby, a four-hour literary reading took place, and amid the bustle, Tony Robles handed me his chapbook of poems and short stories, Filipino Building Maintenance Company. I have known Tony for over a decade now, during which our paths have crossed all over the San Francisco Bay Area Asian and Filipino American literary scenes, from City Lights Books to Kearny Street Workshop to Eastwind Books, from UC Berkeley to Poetry Mission in the back room of the Dalva on 16th and Valencia.

tony robles

[Tony Robles at POOR Magazine's Take Back the Land Ceremony/Eviction Protest, August 2008. Photo by Jen Fogg.]

Some of you may know Tony as Anthony D. Robles, author of the children's books Lakas and the Manilatown Fish (2003), and Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel (2006), both published by Children's Book Press, and both telling the story of the Filipino American boy named Lakas, who becomes policitized as he learns the San Francisco of his elders, the Manongs, Filipino American West Coast laborers during the first half of the last century. Some of you may know Tony as the nephew of the late luminary Manong Al Robles, and indeed, Tony counts Manong Al as one of his greatest influences in literature and in life. Tony is also the co-editor of Poor Magazine, a "literary, visual arts based community organization founded by a previously homeless, currently at-risk, mother daughter team," and "which provides vocational training, creative arts and literacy education, new and multi-media access to very low and no income adults and children in the Bay Area, with the goal of deconstructing the margins of class and race oppression."

In his introduction, Tony tells us that the Filipino Building Maintenance Company was the name of his father's janitorial company. "I provided my father the free labor he needed and my father provided me with the lessons I needed to become a writer. The Filipino Building Maintenance Company is where I learned to write." In "Son of A Janitor," he describes the creative process behind cleaning a toilet bowl:

My favorite method was "The Beethoven" ... because it could be both graceful and rigorous, depending on my state of mind. I would use the toilet brush like the conductor of an orchestra; slow and graceful with a calm rippling effect - etching an invisible melody, which seemed to outshine the other porcelain in the bathroom.

In "Portrait of the Artist as a Janitor," the father hordes toilet paper preparing for the "impending / Toilet paper shortage / Of 1974," which never comes; the son fears his comic books will be used in place of toilet paper. I appreciate his frankness and humor in discussing scarcity. He simply calls it like he sees it, and this makes Tony's poetry refreshing. Throughout his work, he shows us again and again that poetry is found everywhere in abundance. As a security guard in a supermarket in San Francisco, his job description in "Loss Prevention" is as follows:

I'm supposed to
Deter would-be shoplifters
From stealing bread, cereal, freeze
Dried noodle soup


I'm the newest member
Of the loss prevention
Team standing at the entrance
Counting the losses

One by one
They come in
Having lost


Tell me,

What's a
Loaf of bread

To that?

This poetry is political. It initiates a dialogue on class. Most notably, Tony writes poetry and story for the people, larger communities who live and work, who are rooted in the big world outside of academic institutions. He writes in an unflourished language that is both cutting and accessible. It's because of poets like him that I don't take seriously the articles of hysteria ringing the death knell for poetry, and lamenting its lack of relevance to our everyday lives.

Originally Published: October 10th, 2009

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...

  1. October 10, 2009

    I wish I was in America to celebrate our community's story and its creative historians! Great piece!

  2. October 10, 2009
     Randall Mann


    Another lovely, thoughtful posting on the politics of our poetry, the poetry of our politics. Your voice is a vital one here on Harriet. Keep it up.\r

    --Randall Mann

  3. October 10, 2009

    Another great post, Barbara. I just spent yesterday talking poetry at the National Labor College in Maryland and Tony's work sounds like it would be perfect for trade union workshops & classes --UNITE HERE members, Buildings & Trades unionists, Wobs trying to organize the baristas, etc. I'm about to forward your post to several labor educators who might use Tony's book and will use it myself in workplace writing workshops. Thanks for spreading the word.

  4. October 10, 2009

    i remember when he read at UC berkeley. he came straight from work and was still wearing his 'security' uniform. awesome work & great post.\r


  5. October 10, 2009

    So, Barbara Jane Reyes, I'm going to risk something here. Six or so blogs later and I still don't have a sense of what you think in the poetry way. Most often you boost the poetry of others, mostly men poets, mostly Filipino-Americans. I appreciate and admire that perhaps you are using the platform to speak for poets outside the mainstream, whatever the mainstream really is. (Trust me. You don't have to be a hyphenated American to be outside poetry's mainstream.) But what do you think? What is your approach to poetry? What is your poetry way?\r

    As for what is essentially political in poetry Neruda said it best in his Nobel lecture.\r\r

    Toward a splendid city indeed. Then there is the story of the CIA backed junta that took down Allende's democratically elected government. Pinochet sent out a squadron of soldiers to arrest Neruda in his sea coast house. The old poet was dieing by then and bed ridden and they sent out a whole squadron to arrest an old man. When the soldiers broke in, found the poet in his bed, he said back to them, "There is nothing here to fear except for poetry." The captain and his soldiers immediately exited.\r

    So what's your take? What's your voice?\r


  6. October 11, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    Thank you so much for the link to the Neruda lecture, Terreson. A treasure to read it in the context of this week's forest of responses. \r


  7. October 11, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Terreson I think you will find my voice in my own poetry books and my own blog. Seriously, I do not see my role here on Harriet as advertising myself, as a platform for myself to hear myself speak about myself. I believe if you look at what I am saying about all of these other poets and their work, who they write for, what they write about, what they do with language and line, you will see what my poetic concerns are, what I believe poetry does, what I believe is important in poetry. I believe also that if you see how I am using this Harriet space to call readers' attention to poets they'd otherwise not know much or anything about, you will see that this is also something very important about my poetry and poetic concerns.

  8. October 11, 2009

    You bet, Margo B. I found the lecture online almost ten years ago and go back to it from time to time. Such beauty and truth. And fair enough, Barbara Jane Reyes. As I said I appreciate and admire the use to which you are putting the space.\r


  9. October 11, 2009
     Edwin Torres

    Well said Barbara...I think this blog is a fabulous resource for what poetry is to each poet. The way of the poet, as complex and varied as humanity's imprint on each poem. I would imagine there's no need to defend voice in a forum as wide as this one. Not only grateful to be included but to be heard. Onward...

  10. October 12, 2009
     Allen Gaborro

    Tony is an unforgettable figure in Bay Area poetry circles. His poetry is pointed and vibrant. It also offers a vivid narrative of the lives of the unprivileged and minority parts of society. I consider Tony to be a true artist and compassionate human being. Anything I can say about him can never convey his poetic depth and social commitment.

  11. October 15, 2009

    thx for doing this deep and thoughtful review- thx mentioning the silenced voices of workers and survivors!!!-

  12. October 17, 2009
     Tara Betts

    This made me think about how literary lineages are created. I usually find myself thinking about how one writer influences another and that one influences the next, but to think about how that occurs in the same family is interesting too. \r

    Thanks for sharing "Loss Prevention" and the multi-faceted sides of Tony Robles' work. Too often it is assumed that poets are only reading, writing, and promoting their work in pursuit of rewards. There are MANY poets who are doing all that and working service to various communities. I really appreciate and respect that.