Despite nationwide shelter-in-place orders, “Virtual readings on Zoom have been really heartfelt,” says poet Tony Robles. He’s been staying close to his former writing community in San Francisco through that online conference platform, but social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic did postpone Robles’ local events — specifically a workshop and reading he was scheduled to give as part of his appointment as the 2020 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence.
“When I started writing as a young person, it was due to [Sandburg’s] Chicago Poems,” Robles notes. Though Robles didn’t live in the Illinois metropolis, Sandburg’s eloquent writing about the city inspired Robles’ own urban verse. (It’s also worth noting that Robles is the nephew of Filipino-American poet, historian and social justice activist Al Robles, so his connection to the art form is familial, too.)
In San Francisco, where he was involved with social justice and housing justice work, Robles adopted the moniker “The People’s Poet” — a concept he developed in part to honor his boyhood hero, Muhammad Ali, aka “The People’s Champ.” Sandburg was known as the “Poet of the People,” a parallel Robles doesn’t take lightly. Instead of writing in an academic or erudite style, “for me, the onus is to produce work that will resonate” with those in his community, he says.
Robles relocated to Hendersonville less than a year ago. His mother lives nearby, and he’s already found literary circles through the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s “Bleeding Lessons” series (he led one of the workshops), giving readings and starting a small writers’ group. His recent writing reflects the characters he encounters in his adopted hometown. “… He is big, in the way / that an offensive lineman / is big and i hope he doesn’t / take offense at being the / subject of a poem,” Robles writes of a co-worker at the deli where he’s employed.
Though programming at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site is currently on hold, Robles continues to share his love poetry. Future plans may include collaborations with Latinx advocacy nonprofit El Centro and the Black History Collective of Henderson County. He’s also been presenting Sandburg’s writing as well as his own poetry and observations on Facebook via the “Carl Sandburg Home Writer in Residence & Resistance Tony Robles” page.
Learn more at avl.mx/721 and tonyrobles.wordpress.com.