Last summer, Tony Robles packed out of Frisco, as he and his born and raised brethren call it, and hopped an eastbound train for his new home in North Carolina where he’s currently self-quarantined, putting the finishing touches on “Fillmore Flip,” a novel rooted in his family’s history.
“I owe it to my relatives — some who’ve passed on — to tell their story from the heart and with the spirit of their voices that oftentimes didn’t get listened to or got discounted,” said Robles by phone from his mobile home community in Hendersonville. “It’s about the Black, Filipino and Japanese families and the humor, love and culture that came from the neighborhood,” he said.
“It needs to be remembered.”
Robles was recently named the 2020 writer-in-residence at the Carl Sandburg House National Historic Site, though due to the coronavirus, the physical residence at Connemara, the writer’s home, has been postponed, as were several April dates booked here for Robles to read from his work-in-progress.
“Hearing the news of the lockdown there, knowing people I care about, relatives, who are in the high risk group, elders, people with compromised immune systems, makes you feel weakened,” said Robles. He is finding solace in writing and walking in his new, natural setting.
“When you have this virus looming, something that could take your life, you start looking at things differently. You’re noticing the trees, the way they gesture and slant. You really start looking,” he said. “Translating the struggle for breath, our struggle for life, as poets, that’s our job. That’s my job.”
He’s writing about snapping turtles and is meeting people he didn’t often encounter here. “People are very welcoming, he said, “despite the MAGA hats.” But writing about San Francisco from afar is a new experience. “It’s interesting, when all of your memories and the things that made you are there,” he said. “I couldn’t be a poet or a writer had I not been from San Francisco.”
Dubbed “The People’s Poet,” Robles’ work takes a page from Sandburg’s persistent, Pulitzer Prize-winning writings on the race and class struggles of the early 20th century.
“Sandburg wrote about Chicago, the insanity of the situation there. He’d seen death and rejected it: He saw how death translated into spirit,” he said. “With COVID-19, people are dying and we can still keep a vision of the world we want.”
At the time Robles left San Francisco he was running on fumes, working as a senior housing advocate during our extended housing crisis. “I reached a point where I couldn’t stay. Emotionally, I was just drained,” he said. “I had seen what The City had done to people. I didn’t want to end up in an SRO hotel in bad health.”
His mother, living in North Carolina with her husband, encouraged him to move. “It’s probably the best move I ever made in my life,” he said. “She was the one who told me about the Carl Sandburg House,” he said.
Robles had already authored several children’s books before attempting his first poetry collection, “Cool Don’t Live Here No More” (2015), compiled under conditions of rapid, often violent gentrification.
He contributed to the San Francisco story collection “Your Golden Sun Still Shines” (tagged at the bottom of every edition of this column), its title inspired by Robles’ well-circulated “Open Letter to Tony Bennett” with its reference to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He followed with “Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike” (2017), dedicated to the work of the Frisco Five, whose successful protest of ongoing police violence resulted in former mayor Ed Lee forcing the resignation of the chief of police in the face of multiple shootings of San Franciscans of color.
Robles recently met up with the Five’s Equipto, a hip hop artist, at a performance in North Carolina.
“I saw Equipto and Michael Marshall and they made me feel proud to be from the Bay again,” said Robles, “Hearing the message they had in the music.”
“I feel a certain connection to that dude,” Equipto said of Robles. “Like we met in the cosmos light years ago and exchanged our literature…I understand he gets a lot of his spiritual motivation from his uncle, the late great Al Robles, carrying on the tradition of resistance through arts and not just talking it, but walking it.”
Al Robles was a poet and activist, notably associated with protesting the eviction of low-income residents of the International Hotel in Manilatown. His brother Russell also worked to preserve Filipino community and cultural life South of Market.
Like his uncles, Robles remains community-driven, conducting a workshop with the North Carolina Writers Network and helping to organize the Filipino American Community of Western North Carolina’s first celebration of Filipino American History Month. He also volunteers with Friends of the Library and Meals on Wheels.
“People say, ‘come on in,’” he said. “You can’t do that in a city.” And you can’t do it in a pandemic, but poetry, art and music remain available.
“The most important part of writing and art is grace,” he said. “Turning a negative into a positive. Yes, it’s a horrible feeling, but there are things we can do that push us toward beauty and demonstrate what’s possible. There’s still an opening there. Those things don’t die.”
Patrick Marks, owner of The Green Arcade bookstore, is also Robles’ publisher (he acquired Jim Mitchell’s Ithuriel’s Spear Press in 2019; Robles’ editor there, Francesca Rosa, passed away in 2016).
Juggling a full calendar of canceled readings and his bookstore’s future, Marks is counting on a return to hand-to-hand bookselling and a rescheduled date for Robles, though he hasn’t ruled out live streaming should it become absolutely necessary in our uncharted time of safe distancing. “I feel like Tony’s very much involved with us even though he’s at a reserve,” said Marks.
“I have a love hate relationship with The City,” said Robles, “The things I don’t like prompt me to use the written word to try to make it better in whatever way I can,” he said. “As bad as San Francisco can be, there is some grace there, there is some beauty there, there is redeeming value there. It’s my job as a son of that city to bring that out.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.