Cover of Secret Asian Man, Carbó's second book of poetry. His first is titled El Grupo McDonald's. His third, Andalusian Dawn, will be published in May.
Filipino poet Nick Carbó grew up in Manila, a city saturated with American pop culture. He now lives in South Florida and writes about the oddness of being Asian in America. For Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, Carbó tells reporter Lyn Millner how U.S. cultural icons helped shape his witty, often subversive point of view.
American movies, especially musicals, had a huge impact on Carbó. One childhood favorite was South Pacific. The film featured two "brown" children adopted by white parents — a situation that mirrored real life for Carbó and his sister, who were adopted by wealthy Caucasians. Like the children onscreen, Carbó and his sister would often perform for his parents' guests. " I think it was getting the affection of white parents for these brown children that struck me most [about the film]," he says.
Carbó began writing after moving to the United States to attend college. He soon discovered he had a flair for humor, especially when observing American culture. That talent is evident in "Little Brown Brother," a poem in which Carbó imagines he is the Filipino boy befriended by John Wayne in the 1940s war film Back to Bataan.
Carbó seems always to have his radar up for references to Asians in U.S. pop culture — even when they're not there. For years, he misunderstood the lyrics to the 1960s hit song "Secret Agent Man" —- a mistake that fueled the premise of his second book of poems, Secret Asian Man.
"When I first heard the Johnny Rivers song, a long time ago, I thought 'Asian man?' They're talking about me," Carbó says. "I came to the realization — that could probably be the best metaphor for the Asian-American male. A lot of times, he's invisible in this American culture."
Carbó says he's troubled that Americans seem to know so little about the Philippines, even though U.S. cultural influences dominate the islands: "By writing about these influences, it's my way of kicking back."
Carbó has written three books of poetry and edited three anthologies of Filipino literature. He's the visiting poet at Columbia College in Chicago.