When Armin Tolentino and a couple of friends bicycled all the way across the United States in 2007, it was boring in the best possible way, he said.
Pedaling across vast plains became a sort of sensory deprivation experience — other than his throbbing back — that left him alone for hours every day with the words inside his head.
“One way to find out who you are is to experience boredom,” said Clark County’s new poet laureate and the author of a celebrated 2019 book called “We Meant to Bring It Home Alive.” “Poetry helped me survive the boredom.”
(OK, it wasn’t all boring, Tolentino added: “There were some really cool adventures. There were bars where we were getting free shots.”)
Now that we’ve survived a year of boredom, pain, loneliness and loss, Tolentino is eager to draw poetry out of people who have never written before and may not realize how much wisdom they have to offer. He’s especially eager to connect with elders who have seen it all, he said, and communities of color forced to the margins of society.
Appointed by the Clark County Arts Commission to serve as our official poetry ambassador for the next two years, Tolentino wants to bring writing workshops, readings and other literary events to schools, community centers, churches, nursing homes — anywhere people want to try their hand at poetry.
“What are the lessons that our elders can teach younger folks, and younger folks can teach elders? I would like to get a cross-cultural and cross-generational dialogue going through poetry,” he said.
Tolentino, who turns 40 on Monday, grew up in New Jersey. His bilingual, Filipino-immigrant parents demonstrated a love of literature in different ways: his mother reading romance novels, his father relishing and writing traditionally rhyming, romantic poetry.
Tolentino always excelled at writing but assumed that would stay a hobby, he said. He also loved science and majored in chemistry at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey).
“I could have gone straight into the pharmaceutical industry, which would have been very lucrative, but my stomach wasn’t in it,” he said.
Instead, Tolentino went into social services and special education teaching on the East Coast. He fancied himself a fiction writer but never could finish a story, he said, let alone a whole novel.
“Poetry was more contained. I felt like I could actually complete things,” he said.
After that cross-country bike ride, Tolentino relocated to Portland. He made time to write by taking jobs that never came home with him, like customer service for Delta Air Lines at Portland International Airport. Eventually he returned to New Jersey and earned a graduate creative writing degree at Rutgers University.
Now, Tolentino lives in Vancouver with his wife and works for Multnomah County as a community-service program specialist, helping to ensure equal access to services like housing and domestic violence prevention, and working to grow public schools into community resource centers, he said.
It’s committed work for a guy who once insisted on jobs that required no personal commitment, he agreed.
“There are so many inequities in our system,” he said. “The brownest and blackest of us historically have been harmed by government agencies. It does become emotionally and mentally demanding.”
To carve out time to focus on poetry, Tolentino schedules the occasional weekend escape from it all — even at a bed-and-breakfast or Motel 6, he said — so he can buckle down and work. He figures his poet laureate responsibilities will force him to get creative.
“If I am running writing workshops for students, I’m going to have to be writing right alongside them,” he said.
Into the air
Tolentino recalls his rhyme-loving father reciting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s atmospheric couplet: “I shot an arrow into the air / It fell to Earth I knew not where.”
The image must have made a strong impression on Tolentino, whose celebrated 2019 book of poetry, “We Meant to Bring It Home Alive,” combines powerful awareness of scientific realities — mathematics, astrophysics, paleontology — with fantastical beings, supernatural concepts and Biblical imagery.
“As a Filipino raised Catholic, I grew up … steeped in questions of creation and extinction from both scientific and Biblical perspectives,” he said.
In the opening poem, a whaling ship captures a dragon, tries to haul it home and becomes enveloped in its curse. In others, angel meat earns a government warning for mercury contamination; dinosaur hunters survey the ruins of geologic time and wonder about God; fire-and-brimstone evangelists misuse mathematics to predict Doomsday.
A poignant series of poems about a lost older brother figure called Spaceboy seems to cry out across light years of loneliness and sorrow. It’s deeply felt poetry, but Tolentino said the story is fiction.
“I was thinking, what if someone was out in space, lost in space? What would it be like from his brother’s perspective?” said Tolentino, who added that he never had a brother, and that his sister is just fine.
“I love using the fantastical to explore the most mundane things we feel,” he said.
While Tolentino’s poetry explores serious themes, he said, it often begins with him just messing around with words: rhyming at random, switching letters, tossing together odd nouns and verbs, just to see what surprising images and meanings come to life. It’s like doodling with language, he said.
“Writing can be a deep space … but at its most basic, it’s a form of play. I like free writing,” he said.
A poem called “A Week’s Pay Lost at the Lizard Fight” was born just this way, he said: He randomly paired up “lizard” and “fight” and started asking questions.
“What connection is there? What is a lizard fight, who inhabits this world where lizards are fighting?” He realized it was akin to a cock fight, he said. And off he went on a new poem about an unlucky wager by a man who goes away contemplating a world full of monsters.
“That’s how I create. I just start with the words,” he said. “Do they have energy? Do they sound cool?”