Seattle poet Troy Osaki writes for a Filipino homecoming

The activist’s work often focuses on his family history, his Seattle upbringing and creating ‘a country to come home to.’

A red, purple and pink color gradient on a photo of a man looking into the distance

Seattle-born and -raised writer Troy Osaki brings his complex family history into his poems while actively working for social justice in the Philippines. (Aidan Galassetti)

Troy Osaki believes poetry can change the world — and not just in a “peace, love and happiness” kind of way. 

“I think it can contribute to helping create cultural shifts or creating impact on people’s hearts and minds that can then lead to material change,” says the Seattle poet, activist and attorney.

Material change is important to Osaki, 30, who is of Filipino and Japanese descent. Specifically, he wants to see change in the Philippines. Though the country has been officially independent since 1946, Osaki and others argue it’s not truly free, due to corrupt local governance and the continued economic influence of the United States. 

This interview is part of our Summer Artist Talks. Read more artist Q&As in the series.

Upon first meeting Osaki, you might not know he’s a passionate activist. He has an easygoing, kind demeanor; he loves boba tea and Bad Bunny. But in his poems, a call for justice jumps from the pages, woven in with glimpses of family history and his Seattle upbringing, such as in “& Somehow, My Grandpa Finds Places to Sleep after Japan Invades”: 

A hotel room in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The owner,
Filipino, born in the same province my grandpa is from.

Both remember the smell of every river before the Death
March. A Holly Park bench after asking, in his best

American accent, for a raise & instead, his manager offered
$2 to wash his house windows facing Lake Washington.

Osaki started out writing spoken-word poetry, and won championships in several grand slams. He has earned fellowships from Hugo House and the Poetry Foundation and is a critic-at-large for the long-running journal Poetry Northwest. Most recently, he was selected as a community liaison for 4Culture’s Poetry in Public project (formerly Poetry on Buses).

At the moment Osaki is working on “A Country to Come Home To,” a workshop series in which he helps Filipino college and high school students examine their families’ migration histories through poetry. 

During each 90-minute session, participants produce a collaborative poem, with each person contributing lines — such as in this excerpt of a piece by members of the Northwest Filipino American Student Alliance: 

My history is...
a layover in Guam sharing a candy bar with another kid
it’s making friends on the Navy ship for years and then never seeing them again
my history is free ESL classes at the library
crispy rice scraped from the bottom of the pan

Born and raised in Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood, Osaki says he was politicized during his childhood, due largely to his family’s complex history. On his Japanese side, his grandmother and her family were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. On the other side, his grandfather left the Philippines as a teenager during the Japanese occupation.

Though he remembers always writing, his first real introduction to poetry was at Garfield High School during a spoken-word unit in his English class. When he discovered performance videos from the Brave New Voices poetry slam, he fell down a YouTube rabbit hole, entranced. (He later competed in the national competition himself, in 2012.) 

As a student at the University of Washington, he became more involved in Philippines advocacy by joining Anakbayan-USA, an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist group fighting for Philippine independence. 

He later attended the Seattle University School of Law and planned to continue his advocacy through the legal system, but decided after graduating not to practice. “Law school doesn’t teach you how to change the law. It teaches you how to enforce the law,” Osaki says. “My goal isn’t necessarily to change laws, but it’s actually to transform the whole system.”

With his first poetry collection in the works, Osaki talked to Crosscut about the intersection of poetry and politics and his deep love for the Pacific Northwest. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Crosscut: Looking back at your childhood, can you point to moments that sparked your interest in poetry? 

Osaki: It must have been fourth or fifth grade. I really wanted to be a rock star, and I listened to a lot of Blink-182, and then later on, Taking Back Sunday. I was writing what I wanted to be songs and lyrics, and I would just keep them all in this little folder that had [Blink-182] stickers on it. 

Why did you decide to make your Japanese and Filipino heritage a central theme in your work?

I was first politicized when I was pretty young, through hearing the stories of my different families.

On my Japanese side, both my grandparents were teachers in Oregon. During my grandpa’s first interview to become a teacher, he was told, “The school board chairman doesn’t like Japs,” and rather than be intimidated he replied, “Is that right, you say? He doesn’t like Japs? Well then — I’ll take the job.”

[On my Filipino side], my grandfather left the Philippines in 1945 when he was 18. He became a crew member of an American cargo ship and sailed for New Guinea to load barrels of petroleum for the invasion of Japan. While [he was] at sea, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The invasion was canceled and his ship eventually sailed for America. It arrived in San Francisco in 1945.

After several years working as a teletype operator at Merrill Lynch, [my Filipino grandfather] aimed for a higher position in the company. In response, a branch manager offered him a job washing the windows of his house for $2 an hour. My grandpa eventually brought a case to federal court and won.

Learning about those stories made me feel like I wanted to make some kind of change in the world. My goal is to move people beyond the page — to create, hopefully, what’s lovely poetry, but then to have it arouse them to get involved. 

What are you advocating for in the Philippines?

The Philippines is still semi-colonial, semi-feudal — meaning it’s not truly independent. The U.S. [is influencing] it culturally, politically, militarily. My family left the Philippines because they were forced out, similar to a lot of other Filipinos.

So when I write, that has all come out of the last few years of organizing and trying to put down on paper these experiences. Hopefully [the poems] translate into moments for people to see what’s going on and want to do something about it. I hope for a free Philippines someday, and I would love to contribute to making that happen.

That ties into your workshop “A Country to Come Home To.” Where did the idea originate? 

Last year, I attended an organizing conference, and part of it was about how Filipinos in the Philippines lack economic opportunity, so many of them look for work outside of the Philippines. It’s to the point where there’s a specific term: OFW, or Overseas Filipino Worker. 

That’s why we see Filipinos across the world, which is really beautiful, but also really sad — the reason they’re there is because they’re looking for work they can’t find at home.

One person at the conference said something that really stuck with me: “Every Filipino belongs to the Philippine nation.” People who are overseas are still part of the Philippines, because oftentimes, they didn’t have a choice to leave. Every Filipino has the opportunity to participate in this struggle to create a country to come home to where all Filipinos can someday come back and have opportunity. 

What made you want to work with youth on this project? 

I came up in youth organizing. In high school I was a teaching assistant for another poet who was [working at] a transitional housing center for youth — so every month I would do writing workshops with young people who were picked up for running away or were being exploited on the streets. 

A little later I did an internship during law school for Creative Justice, which provides arts programming for young people who are in the justice system. In law school, I also worked with King County Juvenile Detention Center, so I was representing young people in juvie. 

Growing up in youth programming really helped form who I am, and my hope has always been to provide guidance to other young folks — and also to learn from them. With this project, it just made sense. Youth have always been at the front of revolutionary movements — they tend to be quite a force to be reckoned with. 

What has the response to the series been like?

Some people have said they never thought they could write, but after doing the writing exercise, they have a poem. 

There are always a few folks who share that the writing exercise was actually difficult for them because they don’t know much about their migration history. To me, that says a lot of young people aren’t learning about or aren’t being taught their history. 

Do you find that you write to perform, or write for the page? 

It’s a little of both. I grew up in spoken word, that’s how I came into poetry. It wasn’t until 2016-ish that I started reading more poems and wanting to understand what it means to have a poem on the page.

You can have a line break in a written poem that you might not be able to see if you were saying it. If you line-break a word in half, it might make two different images in the lines or one whole completed image with the two lines, which I really love. So I keep an eye out for things like that, things that can really only happen when written.

In addition to your heritage, you also write about Seattle. 

I love Seattle. I know it has a lot of problems and it’s always changing, but my hope is to stick around. My family has been here for a few generations, and I feel very fortunate to have roots in that way. 

I grew up in Montlake near the Montlake cut. Every September I’d go to St. Demetrios’ Greek Festival and eat a gyro. My school bus would drive through every curve in the Arboretum. I also spent quite a bit of time in the Central District at Washington Middle School and Garfield High School. If I wasn’t there, then I was in Mt. Baker or Seward Park with friends or on the Ave at Cafe Allegro’s open mic.

Living in Seattle, growing up in Seattle, has really shaped how I see the world. My favorite road is Lake Washington Boulevard — when I think about growing up, I think about just going through that very tree-hugged road right by the water. 

My hope is that it leaks into the poetry, intentionally or not. Even when thinking about home, it is the Philippines, it is where my family’s from and it’s also here. Seattle’s really special.

Seattle can be a tough place to be an artist these days. What makes you stay? 

I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to find my people. That’s come through being here for a while and getting to develop relationships early on — but I think in general, people want to see each other succeed. 

I want to put Seattle on the map. I want to go hard for Seattle. I think there’s something really, really beautiful and really powerful here.

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