The increasing vitality in contemporary American poetry is, to my mind, indistinguishable at present from the aesthetic and moral wealth of an extraordinary number of now active Asian-American poets, both young and old. Organizations like Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Kundiman as well as literary scholars like Sianne Ngai and Dorothy J. Wang are also profoundly shaping the discourse and attention of readers, both in and out of the academy. More specifically, as the poetry community confronts questions of racism prompted by larger cultural events as well as specific recent instances in the poetry community, Asian-American poets have played a tremendous role in challenging the status quo, no less valuable than the black radical tradition exemplified by poets such as Claudia Rankine and Fred Moten, among many, many others.
Example: Cathy Park Hong publishes the essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” in Lana Turner that cracks the Internet. Example: Jenny Zhang, John Yau, Ken Chen publish seminal essays concerning not only minstrelsy within conceptualist poetics, but also ruminative and responsive outcries to the scandalous persistence of racial appropriation (exemplified most recently by the Best American Poetry debacle).
This portfolio cannot and should not be seen as a codification nor totalizing index of Asian or Asian-American poetry. Indeed, there are many incredible writers not mentioned below (Tan Lin and Srikanth Reddy are just two examples). Yet the chance to foreground just some of these resounding poets’ works by their fellow poets seems to me a welcome opportunity to reframe our focus and energy away from attention otherwise swallowed up by the scandals of white trespass. Cultural appropriation continues to thrive in American literature in 2015, but it is still not as alive as these poets, their works, works which continue to interrogate self and society, image and hybridity, translation and nativity, among other infinitudes.
What follows below is the response by dozens of contemporary poets to a recent open-invitation to write about an Asian or Asian-American poet that they love, admire, feel transformed by.
There are those who think his name doesn’t matter, that his face is of no consequence. That when I heard him read 20 years ago, what mattered were his poems. But in the world where I grew up, “I don’t think of you as Chinese,” was intended as a compliment, and “That isn’t your mom,” was as common as sunshine, and the only Chinese person I saw every day was my father, who never uttered a poem in my presence. In our world, his given name, “Li-Young” with its dash identical to mine (Ching-Ning), and his family name “Lee,” a name I’d heard my father utter hundreds of times, in reference to people I’d never seen, mattered. His face mattered. It’s a beautiful face; the poets know it. (My father’s face was beautiful too, but our world, full of Emersons, didn’t know it.) Here was a Chinese man who wrote like a god and read like a god and even looked like a god and yet he wrote about his father like a supplicant. As if his father were God. It was a stance I knew intimately; to hear it expressed publicly was astonishing and unforgettable. I titled my first book
my sister, this
beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite,
keeper of sabbaths, diviner
of holy texts, this dark
dancer, this Jew, this Asian, this one
with the Cambodian face, Vietnamese face, this Chinese
I daily face,
this man with my own face.
(Lee, “The Cleaving”)
Ocean is one of the first poets that I met when moving to NYC. Sally Wen Mao introduced us during his chapbook reading with Joseph Legaspi. In Ocean’s living room he once told me “anger is one of the greatest teachers, we should listen to anger.” (I’m paraphrasing this statement). A few months later, I read Ocean’s poem “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” where he writes “And so I learned that a man, in climax, was the closest thing / to surrender.” Thank you, my brother and friend, for everything that you’ve taught me about listening, healing, becoming human. I love you, Ocean!
–Christopher Soto (aka Loma)
Jackie Wang once sent me a vial of her menstrual blood. Sometimes you meet a poet and the poet is a poet of the body in this other way: the mess of it, the no-going-back that a body sometimes is. What I love lately is Jackie’s twitter feed that—in the space of an afternoon—might encompass the color green, psychosis and incarceration, as themes. Which are not themes. [Fetal microchimerism, what the] and [“the green mouth becomes the green stomach becomes the green intestine” becomes the “green intend time,” according to autocorrect] are two recent favorites. Also this, which resembles a form of cultural writing that is nevertheless unhoused, appearing here as the invitation to attend a workshop in Montreal: “what was the feeling you had walking to the park bench to eat your salad, the day grey with ruin like the final scene of tsai ming liang’s vive l’amour. it was the feeling that despite the ruin or maybe because of the ruin, something could be said. did you start to cry?” I have gone over my word limit. To summarize, I love Jackie Wang. Her writing completely and utterly breaks my heart. It makes my heart into a heart again.
There are many Asian and Asian American poets whose work I admire or adore—some whose poetry I feel is essential to my life and my work. While I am sorely tempted to begin listing them, I will constrain myself to naming only one of these poets: someone who is not a dear friend, former student, or former teacher; someone who has never published me and whom I have never had the privilege of publishing; and, finally, someone whose name is not as widely familiar as others I might mention. I carried Sawako Nakayasu’s book
I suppose many have never heard of Wong May, the daughter of a poet, born in Chongqing, raised partly in Singapore. I suppose many who have heard of her might not think of her as an Asian American artist; she came to the States to study in the 1960s, and has lived in various parts of Europe ever since the mid-70s. But those first major books were published here by American publishers, and it was Robert Creeley’s recommendation that made me pick up her books when I found them among the remainder stacks. Inside, lines like these: “the thin line of milk / the imaginary line / What if it were picked up again / 300 pages later? Or in between / woven, forsaken,” It was a time when commercial houses were publishing innovative verse by young poets. Rosmarie Waldrop had a book with Random House. Clark Coolidge had one with Harper & Row, and here were two amazing collections, packed with poems, by Wong May from Harcourt Brace. “The Good Man Palliative / My Pal / The Pest-House Palliative / festooned / Pall Pall the Panorama / the UnPast / the Good Pal Pentatonic.” I’d been looking for her ever since, looking in the spaces her words had left behind them in America when she went off with a husband for elsewhere. Well, she turned up in Ireland, and just last year published a collection titled Picasso’s Tears with something called Octopus books. Wong May is a major find, refound. From “Poem in English”: “One of my first English poems / began / ‘The small man at the counter said’ // Then I went to another country. Indeed I could not remember / what the small man at the counter said. . . . But there is no poem / or I do not remember the poetry, / save that it is in English.”
Sueyeun Juliette Lee is one my personal heros. As a human being, she is generous, courageous, honest, and lives with such utter enthusiasm and integrity, it is hard not to fall in love with ever fiber of her being. Through loss and grief, she gives us some of the most heartbroken parts of her own self in generous gestures of love and compassion. As a poet, her language devastates, the deep honesty with which she lives each moment is embedded in her words and the spaces between those words. The often described act of lying bare on the page one’s own losses, flaws, emotions, etc. does not begin to capture the essence of her work, a work that begins in her body, in the spaces which she occupies, the sky, every ray of light. And as a literary citizen, she works to support so many poets and writers around her, through her many projects and acts, big and small, through Corollary Press, and through conversation, within which she listens and takes in, so much more than many others are capable of.
Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Asian American experience was a distant idea, one relegated to the confines of the United States Mainland. When I left Hawaii for the Northeast, I was confronted with hula grass skirts, Hawaiian Punch, and soft ukuleles as the advertised components of being “Hawaiian.”
Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Saturday Night at Pahala Theatre dares to counter these misconceptions. Written as dramatic monologues and narratives in Hawaiian Creole Pidgin, Yamanaka pulls back the dark curtain from Hawaii’s paradisiacal, tourist façade. Unapologetically grating to the ear, her staccato lines sing about the obsession consuming third- and fourth- immigrant generations to physically pass as “haloe” (white American Caucasian), the mass consumption of pop culture from “Da Mainland,” the sense of shame in local traditions, and the harsh socioeconomic realities fragmenting Hawaii.
Not only was it refreshing to read about issues confronted in my personal upbringing in Hawaii, I also became aware of how claustrophobic the “Asian American” label was. Perhaps this the main reason I admire Yamanaka, as she is one of many prominent Asian American writers from Hawaii daring to expand the narrowness of the “Asian American experience.”
Like many Asian American poets, I was first struck by Cha’s DICTEE. What I love about Cha is her ability to create an experience. She asks us to feel what she feels through her form, which offers fragments of texts, images, and documents. It’s an emotional experience. From the opening, she writes: “Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.” At the time, I was struggling with fiction and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t write in a “linear” way. I kept kicking myself for it: why can’t I just begin and move forward, scene by scene? DICTEE made me realize that storytelling, especially after a history of trauma, war, and migration, was hardly a linear act. I deeply value the honesty and risk in her work—that she will attempt to tell, even though it might not be clear. Cha gave me permission to create constellations of memory as a poet—in media res. I’ve taught DICTEE in my classes and am always worried that she might be too difficult. But, each time, my students are struck by her ability to make them
I read Myung Mi Kim’s The Bounty when I was 19 in Pattie McCarthy’s class in Towson, Maryland. I began writing poetry as a practice because of what Myung’s book made possible intellectually, imaginatively—because of what it opened for poetics as way of living with text. Unlike the positive poetics of inclusion of the NY School and the Black Mountain poets I was also reading at the time (in which the reader enjoys transference and comes to ‘love’ a book or a poet), Myung’s work opened negative affect as a way of living beside, estranged from (rather than through/via) a book. The reader had to
During the first workshop, Myung Mi Kim gave a lecture on silence and it was as if she ripped the sheet of literary history in half. She asked us to think of the poem as a net that catches the mind’s hesitations rather than the perfectly formed phrase. Like most students, I held a conditioned notion on eloquence and Kim gave me permission to use what I considered my shameful ineloquence—my childhood struggles with English, my agrammatism—and fuse that into a radical aesthetic.
Susan Sontag, in her famous essay The Aesthetics of Silence, wrote “The notion of silence, emptiness, and reduction sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing.” While Sontag enumerates on silence as conceptual technique, she only passingly mentions the politics of silence. For Kim, attention to silence is an interrogation. In
Teaching was an intervention; pedagogy, a form of activism; she fostered in me an awareness of the classroom as an institution and how to struggle against that via poetry and conversation. In my mind, Kim is heroic and I am one student of a legion whom she has taught. Someday, she will be recognized as a singular poet who’s influenced a generation.
–Cathy Park Hong
I’ve always admired Trisha Low’s love of doom, which literally means judgment but poetically means something else, perhaps a teetering toward the void that is terrifying, sure, but always a little funny, like the idea that we’ve come to this, to doom, of all things. I’m reminded of Amy Taubin’s review of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in which she argued that the film was a great wedding comedy. Like, god, things are terrible, but at least the world isn’t ending. Except, ha, it is. Trisha’s like that, like a grim punchline that ends the comedy half an hour before the film’s over, leaving us with a brutal last act: the death of the comedian, crushed by planet-sized fate. She once wrote on Facebook:
that thing where a thing happens that makes you resist writing entirely and it is so sharp; bc the thing about speech is that everyone does it/there is no such thing about it being free, it’s just about differentials in reception/audibility which means speech is always inherently fucked. but whatever, i will always believe in cruel art i really love having to take it i really love
Twenty-eight people like this and one person comments: “yes urgh yes.” I’m usually in agreement with Trisha on everything, including this post, but I’ve never liked Chris Burden all that much. Boy’s toys and all that aside, his immovable position on doom—to borrow a phrase of Trisha’s—remains unconvincing to me whereas Trisha, who wrote a book called The Compleat Purge that collects several last wills and testaments written throughout the course of her (young) life, has always seemed closer—at least in writing—to the desperation that characterizes life pulled against its will toward meaninglessness, the sucking vacuum to which all things slide into profane oblivion (let’s say obscurity or poetry) that comes with being a writer like Trisha, that is, a poet. So the thing is, yes.
Divya Victor and I both have published books with Les Figues, and I think of her as kindred, an aesthetic stepsister I don’t have to compete with—only adore. Divya’s conceptualism is neither sterile nor precious; it is an avant garde with guts. When I read her poetry my predominant emotion is the panic of immersion; she captures me in this fucked up cultural echo chamber from which there is no escape. Comfortable distanced observations are impossible when the text has swallowed you. Hers is a subject struggling not to be an object in the flood of cultural idiocy that makes up Western Civ. To claim an “I” in Divya’s writing is precarious, be you Eliza Doolittle or Dora, Freud’s hysteric who walked away from his patriarchal clutches. In
Don’t make me pick one, cause I can’t, so I won’t. I am happy to call these three poets some of my best friends, my best partners in this brutal, glorious world of poetry. We’ve toured together, written together, been through real life-ish together, side-eyed white folks together, all the things that writer friends do.
Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone teaches me constantly about grief as dangerous and beautiful beast, about the power of moving into out of it and allowing yourself to be transformed. I am always amazed how Franny makes alchemy and new technologies out of language without losing the heart of her poetry. He poetics is a fierce 1-2 punch, a combo which spins language into and beyond itself like that of the best “language poets” but still grips and tenderizes your heart like the most true and clear of storytellers.
Fatimah Asghar is fucking magic. And I don’t mean magic in a fake way (also, fuck western colonialism for trying to make us place the idea of magic into an unreal space). Through Fatimah’s work, I learn so much about myth-making, about transfiguration, about how poetry is the realest spell we have. I had the privilege of reading her new chapbook After and Fatimah’s constructions and reconstructions of family, self, love, trauma, and healing are what this world needs.
Hieu Minh Nuguyen… this mofo. I get so made reading his poems in the “YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE” kinda way. I’ve known this genius since high school and to watch him grow into the phenomenal poet he is today makes me cry. His book This Way To The Sugar is a gospel of the sad boy, a salve that doesn’t always fix the wound but makes it beautiful. I am grateful to my brother for his curiosity, his poems that dismiss as they embrace, his ability render us so bare and raw and worthy and unworthy.
Good lord, I am best in the company of my brave, brave loves, thank god for these poets in my life and yours.
Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge was the second Asian American poet I read in my twenties. Her poems work by constellating fragments in an investigation that is both discursive and nonlinear, precise and abstract, as if one were to combine a microscope with a prism. Many of her poems move in long lines and small observations, speaking up for the integrity of small things, reassuring me that the shadows in our world are worth pausing over, examining in detail. In an interview with Laura Hinton, I love how she describes that “in the margin, fertile things happen. When things are fixed, things can’t grow. But in margins, things grow” (Jacket, April 2005). This impulse comes through not only in the subject of her observations but also in the shifting rhythm of her poems. In “Nest,” she writes: “Wherever I look is prior absence, no figure, ruin escaping an aesthetic: hammock, electric fan, ghost don’t qualify as guards. / The comfortable interior my guest inhabits is a moving base, states of dwelling undetermined, walls cross-hatched like mother tongue” (
–Jennifer S. Cheng
We meet for lunch at Bottino by the High Line. Last time it was Aquagrill, a stone’s throw from her townhouse, back when she was losing the view outside of her window. That’s New York. This time she’s coming from a fashion shoot; Richard Tuttle is involved, her artist husband who has a polygonal scrap of sewed canvas tacked up on the Whitney’s wall. Perhaps you also caught his show at Sperone Westwater when Soho was more of a gallery destination than an haute-couture shopping spree? Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge says: Poets are some of the worst dressed folks she knows; there’s no excuse! If you don’t care about what’s hanging on your body, then what about the materiality of language? We talk about Yoji, about Issey, about how I depend on Tokyo 7 on 7th St. for my fashion fix. She reminds me to hit the annual sales at designer boutiques, how innovation remains within reach for all budgets! She adores Lanvin. I tell her about the Jill Sanders lace-up boots I scored at an estate sale up north for six bucks, a woman’s size 9, a perfect fit. No way!, she says. She tells me about the ants who have invaded her home in Abiquiu, her Southwest abode. She doesn’t spray Black Flag, doesn’t summon the Orkin guy. What she does is talk to the ants, respecting their needs but they’ve got to go. The next day they are gone. I look into her elegant face, this utterly humble culturally savvy down-to-earth verbal artist of the highest order, my maternal psychopomp! She talks about touring college campuses with her daughter. We talk about collage and the need for vast horizontal surfaces to lay out all the research. We talk about our health. I have no idea what we ate!
Suji Kwock Kim was revolutionary to the way I thought about Asian American poetry. Her debut poetry collection, Notes from the Divided Country, which was chosen by Yusef Komunyakaa as the winner of the 2002 Walt Whitman Award, encapsulates decades of Korean history. With deft lyricism and a fearless gaze, she traces the fraught relationship between North and South Korea as witnessed by her speaker’s grandparents. In doing so, she is able to place herself as both product of and progress toward reconciling that history and America’s involvement with her current role as an Asian American poet. Early work such as the tight, stark poem “Occupation” is propelled forward with urgency and hyper-awareness of: “The soldiers / are hard at work / building a house. / They hammer / bodies into the earth / like nails…” This seems to foreshadow her more recent work, which is dedicated, among other things, to various North Korean subjects. Kim casts her sharply critical and lyric-driven eye on the political upheaval above the 38
–Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello
As poets (and editors more so), we pay lip service to pieties about poetry that are routinely belied by work that grabs our attention yet does little more than occupy us in the moment; we move on, unenlightened. But there are times when we do encounter poets whose work literally changes lives: Claudia Rankine, whose work made possible discussions of race that never took place before; Ocean Vuong, not reducing audiences to tears, but elevating them to tears; Danez Smith, bringing out in us by force—the forcefulness of his words and their rhythms—the humanity we’ve worked so hard and meanly to obscure and conceal; Fatimah Asghar, breaking the internet by breaking free of gravity and wresting Pluto back within our orbit… Among my pantheon of such life changers and life savers is Jenny Zhang. It’s reductive to characterize a poet’s work, it’s a kind of privilege and disaster even to be asked, so everything I’ve said in the foregoing and am tempted to say about Zhang makes me abashed—reminds me to shut the hell up and read. But I want to point out that not only in her momentous poetry, but in two recent prose pieces she has done best what poets are here to do: she’s called us out, and calls upon us. In “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” she refuses to be scandalized, which, pathologically, is what our culture requires of us; she indicts the vicious and ubiquitous invidiousness that “makes us act wild and violent toward each other sometimes instead of kind.” And in her essay for Poetry, “How It Feels,” she boldly summons our will to extend our sympathy, and makes this a crucial purpose, one fulfilled in her own poems. She reminds us—if we have forgotten it, we ought to be ashamed—that we can and must learn to see differently, and have to feel something in the process. That essay resonated with so many young readers that I’ve lost count of how many have written in to say so. That their lives had been changed by Jenny Zhang is changing mine, and will change yours, too.
Recently I read at the Hillstead Museum’s Sunken Garden Reading Series with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Vijay Seshadri and in introducing him recalled how influential his guidance was when I was a graduate student in New York City in the late 90s. I was struggling away on my own poems and, barely knowing me at all, Vijay nonetheless agreed to blurb my first collection of poems, Instrumentality—an act of kindness I have never forgotten.
In the citation for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, the committee called Vijay’s book 3 Sections, “a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.” Indeed Vijay has proven himself to be an epistemological poet, one who is concerned with the scope of the human mind and its limitations, yet, rather than abiding in a purely Parnassian realm of speculation, his poems also include pop cultural references and a keen ability to satirize our new media moment of accelerated perception and innate narcissism. He also cultivates a Wallace Stevensesque focus on metaphysics and a John Ashbery-like parataxis, where ideas leap from line to line, clause to clause, using coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions to maintain an equilibrium between disparate figures.
One part of 3 Sections I love is the long poem of nearly 500 lines, called, in a representative conflation of genres, “Personal Essay.” Really a discursive meditation on the nature of the self, of language, and of the self in language, the poem emphasizes the microscopic and the macroscopic, moving from the specificity of certain individuals who live in the speaker’s neighborhood in Brooklyn to the chaotic plasma in the sun’s core, from the connotative to the denotative, perpetually perplexed at the sheer fact of existence, the plenitude that arises from sheer emptiness, both of which surround us at any given moment.
With the publication of 3 Sections, Vijay Seshadri became the first Asian American to win one of our country’s highest literary honors and I’d like to celebrate his work for its ambition and innovation, his generosity in my own life and his crucial, if reluctant trailblazing, hopefully opening up the way for other Asian American poets (who though too numerous to list here, deserve to be listed and more importantly, to be read) to prosper. If the speakers in his poems are amiable, they are nonetheless astringent in their lucid appraisal of the nature of reality and his voice—wry and perceptive, compassionate yet analytical, and surprisingly wise, or, rather, wise in surprising ways—has the capacity to comfort us even as it discombob
Lucille Clifton wrote “I had no model.” She, “nonwhite and woman” in “Babylon.” I had—I have—Suheir Hammad. Her first book, Born Palestinian, Born Black and the hard plastic sleeve that housed it at UC Berkeley’s library. The first reading and the hug she gave me at 19. She stands in the center of justice and sings. To watch an audience watch her, to be an audience to her, is to be reminded of the most urgent and real and courageous possibilities of poetry to move, to grieve, to excite, to connect. She is Brooklyn, is Palestine, is displacement and warfares, is Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, is hip hop and Bucky Fuller, is Arabic wa English, is wa and wa, all and desire. What she gives us is exacting, taxing—it is not easy the grief she channels, the dead she restores with her body. Once, she gave me a jade plant trimming that was mid-sprout and said
Why pick one? Catalina Cariaga. Virginia Cerenio. Merle Woo. José Garcia Villa. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Cha. Myung Mi Kim. Bhanu Kapil. Mark Aguhar. Brandon Shimoda. Farid Matuk. Ronaldo Wilson. I will pick one: Hoa Nguyen. Decolonial co-conspirator, drinking buddy, poetry page mother. An all-in-one. All over this continent of poetry, teaching everywhere, from her homes, something on the stove, green just outside. With her page mothers, Kyger and Frym. Across the poem’s millennium. Stealing from language itself, from whiteness, Americanness, heteropatriarchy, poetry careerism. Open to all of life itself, a queer Asian American life (mine? hers? ours? why not yours?), the organic ground for formal innovation, sonic space, multiple points of attention, the powerful filter against bullshit and what passes for poetry. The task of the poet to cultivate.
The first time I encountered Don Mee Choi’s work was through her translation of Korean poet, Kim Hyesoon. “No, I’m not an agitator. It turns out that I’m a mere imitator the lowly kind, which is non other than a translator…” she writes in her essay “Freely Frayed.” She continues: “In my world of nobody’s business I twirl about frantically frequently farfar to the point of failure feigning englishenglish.” Don Mee writes of the degradation of translation, language, its inevitable failure. Yet, confronting failure is only the beginning. In her translation and in her own poetry, failure is a feral state of being. “Leave! Let’s land, she’s none, a lone planet. / Come, have a long life and then glow-glow.”
Don Mee has taught me to embrace the discomfort of difficult texts. Her writing has showed me that discomfort is neither cruel nor condemnation, but a passageway towards freedom, or towards becoming feral, or freely frayed.
And who are the freely frayed? Daughters without homes, bitch mothers, sisters, unwanted girls, pigs…. Don Mee provides a space for these creatures of filth, love, and rebellion. Not a nation space, but a radically decolonized one, a poetic one; one of discontinuity and urgency, of faith and disgust. In her poetry, discomfort is not pain, but a blood necessity: “Sister’s madness is as good as mine. We make the biggest picture in the world.”
Dear Don Mee,
What is the racial identity of a worm?
In discomfort, I writhe.
In discomfort, I vomit.
In discomfort, I breathe.
In discomfort I fray.
A nation of pigs nod their heads and say
I crawl out of my pig pen and say
–Christine Shan Shan Hou
I first read Garrett Hongo when I was 15, in high school. I used to skip lunch to hide in the back of the library, where no one could see me, and read with the book hidden in my lap. At that time, I was also working on a tobacco plantation in rural Connecticut. Being under legal working age, I was paid under the table, in cash, but made enough to help my mom with the rent and other bills. The work was excruciating, but when you’re 15 and making “your own way,” inner pride (and books) can be a great balm.
The copies of Hongo’s Yellow Light and The River of Heaven in the stacks were actually brand new, their spines barely broken. I remember hearing them crack and creak, like the hinge of doors. It might sound strange, but I picked out the book because of the face on the back cover: it was the face of an Asian man. I did not know Asian people could publish books, then. The Asian faces I saw most were my family, who could not read. For me, Asianess was, in a way, the antithesis to literature, to books, to words. But not stories. My family always had stories—and so did Garrett Hongo. Hongo’s poems were the welding of story and words and writing all at once. His very existence permissioned me into the possibility of my own writing. He wrote of his kin’s immigrant lineage in Hawaii with careful, ecstatic, and painful celebration. I especially admired his meticulous and prideful depictions of cane workers: the syntax and sonic pressures enacting the machete’s steady and melodious cadence. And because I never saw what sugar canes looked like, my mind replaced them with the tobacco plants I was cutting in those Connecticut fields, the same machete in Hongo’s poems lifted by my own hands.
Most pivotal for me is his poem, “The Legend,” in which a man of Asian descent is murdered, seemingly at random, while doing his laundry. The scene echoed the violent absurdities I often faced as a Vietnamese exile in White American spaces. The man is shot, but the crowd does not move to assist him. They are more arrested by the “sounds [that] escape from his mouth, / a babbling no one understands…The noises he makes are nothing to them.”
But they are something to me. It is my noise. It is my language. It is our language. Our voices—which are so often erased, silenced, crossed out, or stolen, suddenly reappear in Hongo’s poems—to stay. As I read, I felt I was standing side by side with someone I might become. I felt the machetes come down, the green stalks falling. I felt I was making something of value with my bare hands—and a few “sounds escaping from my mouth.”
Thank you, Garrett Hongo, for being.
For years now, I have taught Cathy Song’s “Girl Powdering Her Neck”—a poem working from the Utamaro print—as part of an ekphrastic exercise in creative writing classes. Ekphrasis, I discuss with my students, is a Greek word composed of the words for “out” and “speak.” An ekphrastic poem then speaks out, creates phrases, for the silent artwork.
Is the poem then outspoken? Song’s poem works mainly in imagery. And its imagery makes it wonderful to teach to aspiring writers. Indeed, an ekphrastic exercise in a creative writing course asks students to “show” rather than “tell.”
However, Song’s poem both shows and tells. It tells precisely in those moments that revise Utamaro’s print and imagine a world outside of the portrait—extending the print’s frame and bringing agency within the confines of this world. Indeed, as the poem claims, the woman here “is about to paint herself.”
But as a woman of the ukiyo, the pleasure quarter, does she paint herself for her self or for others, specifically men—their pleasure, their gaze? This is the double bind of the poem, and in this way I see it participating within the fraught tradition of American Imagism—a tradition that begins with Pound’s “invention” of the Chinese and his signing Hilda Doolittle as H.D. Imagiste.
Is it possible to read Song’s final image—a formal haiku describing the silent woman in her mirror—as speaking back, or out to, the problematic appropriations of Pound’s Imagism?
touch in the middle of the lake
and drift apart.
Perhaps, the poem points to the limits of prioritizing showing over telling. Here, in Song’s own “apparition,” we see a woman’s lips in motion. It is like the close up of an actress in a silent film. In a sense, reading these lines we are also reading lips. It is also the image of drowning.
I’ve known John for almost 40 years, since he was a student of mine in the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Since then, he has become famous as a poet and also as an art critic. In the latter, he was somewhat following in my footsteps, though I warned him against doing it! Several years into his career as critic he bemoaned to me, “What the heck did you get me into?” Seriously, he has written much and beautifully about art, more so than almost any contemporary critic I can think of. His monograph on Jasper Johns, called
I view John Yau as an incredible cultural/artistic catalyst. He has acquaintances and interests in many branches of the arts that he is magically able to bring together to create new and diverse areas of inquiry, a practice which fuels his own creativity as a writer. His poems are endlessly playful and often interrogate Chinese stereotypes in American culture (e.g. Charlie Chan, Anna May Wong) while taking their cues from the visual arts.
A couple of years ago Pleiades sent me a review copy of John Yau’s Further Adventures in Monochrome, and I carried it around by its dog-eared pages until, like the velveteen rabbit, it’d been loved nearly to death. Still, the review scared me because I had no idea how I would convey the way Yau’s poems electrified me. It felt as if reverence had mated with irreverence, the sky had split open, and whimsy (in the guise of John Yau’s brain) had been born. To simply say the poems freed me would be clichéd. But I mean it. John Yau’s poems freed me. They freed me in the same way a vault frees a gymnast from the floor—into flight, into flips and twists, into a launch away from that which had held me down. I saw that language could be stretched and snapped and turned inside out until what society thought it’d tamed ran wild again.
The truest thing I know to say is that Yau’s poetry found new ways to startle me awake to the peculiarities of being. It reminded me how little I really know about poetry, art, life, love, language—everything. It reminded me not to take it all too seriously (“I realized that I was going to / have to stop being a troublesome troll / if I wanted to make further strides / in my quest for nobility”) or to expect resolution, but to delight in play, to reside in uncertainty, and to have faith in the boundless possibilities for the construction and discovery of meaning through symbol and sound.
I first heard of Patrick Rosal from John Murillo, when I was driving John back to Brooklyn from a reading he’d done at my school and asked him if he knew of any other strong young Asian American male poets I should check out. The ones I knew were all well-known (to me anyway) already
Patrick was the first poet that came to mind for John; he said he was one of the best poets he knew and one of the best
Bhanu Kapil’s writing is everything because it teaches me how to unlearn everything, how to dislodge from epistemological violence and the colonial frameworks of life/poetry.
While sitting in Bhanu’s workshop at Naropa five summers ago, I apologized for interrupting her. She replied: “No. Dominate me.” I only mention this because, through her amazing books and blog, Bhanu uses extreme receptiveness to work out a poetics of devastation and transformation. Her model is as metaphysical as it is embodied, enmeshing the spiritual, speculative, and ancestral with modernity as it is brutally lived, literature made of blood that generates light “[p]erceptible to the ones who also. Lie down on the ground. Lie down on the ground like that.”
When I received Ban en Banlieue—the book quoted above—I built a nest for it the way Bhanu’s words carve out limbs for their subjects and readers. I spilled red feathers all over the nest because in this work I always shed something, I give something over, I fly into a hole in the border that had kept sacred monstrosity at bay. Bhanu’s continuous relocation of the body and distribution of the soul—maybe the deepest move a writer can make against the enclosures of the state—reminds me of what the poet Roberto Piva once said. I feel it expresses Bhanu’s place in and beyond contemporary literature:
Poetry is a delirium. The poetic is itself an act of transgression in the sense that it deals with invisible things on the planet, with invisible forces… This is why I say the true poet is marginal. And there is no experimental poetry without experimental life.
–Lucas de Lima
To single out just one Asian/Asian American poet who means the world to my literary life is difficult—there are so many whose work inspires me daily: Jeffrey Yang, Ocean Vuong, Solmaz Sharif, Li Bai, Bei Dao, Hoa Nguyen, Wang Wei, Hiromi Itō , Wendy Xu, Dunya Mikhail, Rabindranath Tagore… the list goes on.
To pick one, as I must, I pay tribute to the prodigious Cathy Linh Che.
I first met Cathy when we interned together at New Directions. I had just come from Ireland to New York and Cathy took me under her wing, though she did so with such subtlety and grace that I didn’t quite realize it, or the expanse of her influence on me, until much later. Her kindness (she listened, advised, consoled) and generosity (she listened, advised, consoled) was extraordinary.
In more ways than one, Cathy helped me to embrace my Asian (Iranian) identity and find some homes away from home. She brought me to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and introduced me to the wonderful poets Ken Chen and Solmaz Sharif (Solmaz, another voice of poetic precision and strength. I could never have dreamed back in Ireland, where I knew no other Iranians my age, let alone any Iranian poets, that one like Solmaz existed.) Cathy was the first person who took me to Poets House. She encouraged me to write and share my work (more of that generosity!). She was my conduit to so much, personally and creatively.
Early into knowing her, I heard Cathy read a selection of poems, variations on the concept of object permanence. Those poems—their control, their images of light, of body, of love—stayed with me for years:
is not an ornament
despite the shards.
Or love is precise-
since it is hollow.”
They are now a part of Cathy’s award-winning debut, Split, published last year by Alice James Books. One of the most indelibly brilliant and brave collections I’ve ever read, Split is a lyrical, unflinching exploration of the lasting effects of trauma across generations—from her parents’ lives in Vietnam during the war, to her childhood in America.
The poems in Split fearlessly and elegantly examine personal origins, ghosts, memories; piecing together caesuras of history, and recasting silence and pain in the light and truth of Cathy’s exquisite music. To read Split is to be bruised and healed, it is to listen, to grieve, and to see.
Cathy Linh Che’s is a powerful voice that I am so grateful exists in the world. She is a true inspiration.
Wendy’s poems are intimacy and power. She wrote a poem, Notes for an Opening, and it drove everyone’s attentions to a Foxconn worker/poet, Xu Lizhi. Asia is a massive factory. Most of the merchandise that you are using, wearing, relying on are made in China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Wendy is brave enough shouting out, and she is also sensitive enough to capture the pain.
We used to joke about how much Asians hate each other in Asia, and sort of love each other when we are out of Asia. Since there are lots of pressures coming from the family, sometimes it is hard for Asians to help others. Wendy is not just nice, funny and sweet, but also does her best to promote Asian writers. We need more Wendys, so we can hear more heart-melting poems.
I read the work of many Asian American poets, and it is unfair to be invited to write about one. I won’t behave. This is because I am thinking of two books, one published in 2013 and the other scheduled for publication in 2016. The books are Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong and the forthcoming Blackacre by Monica Youn. I call attention to these two very different books because of what they share: an original use of language in different genres and forms. Those who are unfamiliar with Youn’s work should read her sequence “Blackacre” in
Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire is a book full of invented language and imagined idioms—Hong’s name for the Internet is “smart snow.” It contains prose poems, a series of lipogram ballads, and a poem titled “Abecedarian Western.” Hong uses a wide range of devices to propel her poems down unfamiliar paths. I find myself intrigued, thrilled, curious and delighted as I follow her down a path. The first stanza of “Ballad A”—in which every word has to have the letter “a”—reads:
A Kansan plays cards, calls marshall
a crawdad, that barb lands that rascal a slap;
that Kansan jackass scats,
camps back at caballada ranch.
Sound and meaning embrace and dance around each other. It is one the many uncanny dances that Hong invents, moving into new spaces in poem after poem. She is one of the best we have.
I’m scrolling through pages and pages of Barbara Jane Reyes’ blog, trying to find the one I remember reading years ago about race, creative writing and teaching back in the aughts, when it felt like no one was listening to anyone talk about race, creative writing and teaching. For every page of posts there is no fewer than one shout-out per page to other writers. This is Barbara Jane Reyes a poet of invention whose voice and style shifts from book to book and who exerts tremendous energy promoting the works of writers. How she is able to hone in to house these voices while expending time and energy honoring other writers in print is beyond me. Re-reading “[a compendium of angels]” I am struck by the expansiveness and compression of line and image and idea and sound (lines pulled out and stacked to show how sound constricts and amplifies)
angel of blades beating air synthetic sound chemical rain. . .
angel of descent’s interlocked confessions
angel of black smoke air raid sirens
angel of morphine’s shrapnel
angel of rock and roll first world impotence
angel of autumn patrol ambush upriver clarity clean
angel of racial epithet
angel of machetes
angel of proper burials
angel of heathen incantation
the opposite of eden: angel of guerrilla resistance
Founder and editor of RædLeaf Poetry Linda Ashok works tirelessly to extend poetic gazes across oceans. Within seconds of meeting me Linda linked me to a handful of poems by Indian poets whose work she loved. Her generosity was astounding. And again when I examine Linda’s lines I’m confounded as to how she has time and energy left to pay such close attention to the world and focus on writing these kinds of lines:
The voice is an afternoon of dragonflies, a box of lake, osmotic. . .
Earlier we dreaded thoughts of erosion. We wanted to stay whole
and defined, wanted to avoid injuries and arousal. We wanted to live
remotely, in each other and handle with care our porcelain bodies. Now
we are changed minds. We have decided to erode, injure and allure. The
magnificence of the entire civilization is historically indebted to the
incineration of unclaimed bodies found in Eden.
Not all poets are generous about promoting other people’s work; after all, to promote someone else’s work is to take time from our own writing, from our own concentration; to hold someone else’s work up to the light is to turn our gazes away from ourselves. Barbara wrote a few blogs on generosity, in one she says: “I still believe in what Eileen Tabios told me a long time ago—to promote yourself, promote others. I like this practice of generosity.” I am extraordinarily grateful to have Barbara and Linda in this world. They not only actively support and build poetry communities they also write kick-ass poems worth sitting with for years.
I open the book and it falls to the poem, “The Gift.” The poem is only two sentences; each buckled-in-two by a semi-colon. The first sentence links King Tut’s gold face, heartbeat of a swallow in flight, a bobcat, sunflower stalks, ashes forming a cloud. Who can do such a thing, over and over? And how? “The Gift” is a poem from The Ginkgo Light, by Arthur Sze. Here is a poet of subtlety and power. The Ginkgo Light itself swirls around the U.S. bombing, (and let us not forget U.S. bombing), of Hiroshima, Japan, where, at the epicenter, a Ginkgo tree survived to bud and bloom.
Like a delicate necklace of glass beads, held together by tiny steel hooks, the poem’s semi-colons link together what seem disparate, full of distance, idle joys, and consciousness. The second section of the second sentence of the couplet-ed “The Gift,” reads, “no one restores papyrus // once it has erupted into flame;” // but before agapanthus blooms, // before the body scorches, razes / consciousness, you have time //…”
Thus in the one poem, essential, physical experience (heartbeat of a swallow in flight) and the last moments before extinguished consciousness, are tightly twined in double lines, like stalks of grain, fired and made incandescent.
Throughout The Ginkgo Light much magic is made. But it is not magic, it is the thinking of the poet who understands the linkages of both experience and thought, history and the ever fleeting moment. “August 6, 1945: a temple in Hiroshima 1130 meters / from the hypocenter disintegrates, while its ginkgo // buds after the blast.”
I have never liked beauty for beauty’s sake. Show me a sunset; I want to see the decaying carcass it’s going down on. Speak about the larger-than-life glowing orange moon; I itch to talk about the mechanics of pollution amplifying its rays and how we made it so. We are a gorgeous and cruel species. Poetry that shows me how to hold two or more ideas, supposedly opposing, simultaneously in my head and grapple with their symbiosis, locate their intersections and exchanges, applaud their joint custody of a concept, gives me life. I am charged by the work that actualizes untidy concepts in the visceral; I am challenged by work that undoes underlying assumptions; I am engrossed by the introduction of ideas not meant to meet.
Kim Hyesoon goes where women are forbidden. Hyesoon turns the feminine dynamic, throwing the one dimensional side of a binary into spasms. Hyesoon’s lyricism is beauteously ugly and beastly with a hatelove that envelops more than prescribed, more than recommended, more than permitted, more than allowed, more than forbidden. Her verse finds the edge and spills over. Through her words, I am permitted bulbously pregnant births of delirium tremens that shift the balances of acceptability. I withdraw from the addiction for approval. I can hear the growling behind smiles of what’s possible. Poetry has always been a scaffolding to move the imagination along. Some call it “permission” while others call it “freedom.” Call it a shimmying, call it groveling, call it crawling through the muck. If we are conditioned to avoid allowing the mind to venture where it has been forbidden—to keep it contained and bite-sized palatable—the imagination wanes at more than one precipice. The imagination turns away to imagine elsewhere in places sanctioned, deemed more interesting or official. Ontology. Heroes. Beauty in nature. Epiphanies on love. Hyesoon’s verse fucks that. Hyesoon approaches the dull, the death, the uninteresting, the inconceivable—and knocks. Her poetry takes the hands of such and leads them back to the visible. Her words want to see all things not divorced from what is already settled. Her poetry marries the disparate, the inconceivable and ill conceived with confidence and questions and novelty. Her lines bridge and seed with contaminates.
I admire women who go all in, take cues from their embracing the detritus after our bellies fill and expel; that which decays also feeds on decay and thrives because of it. Alice Notley takes this angle in A Culture of One. Leonora Carrington’s Debutante embraces her hyena when she eats garbage and human faces and becomes more than the groomed good girl into woman. Hyesoon’s soothing baroque with its dirt and jutting angles joins good company and builds a beauty we did not expect: that of finding the death drive at the heels of and fueling life, lining the bloody veins that the force of living would fall inert without. Try living with death because we continue dying while alive, Kim Hyesoon reminds you:
We return as pigs
We snap back onto the pig magnet that eats and shits
We return as hot pigs
We return for our final act
The act in which our fingers rot even before we lie down in our coffins
(Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi, “I’m OK, I’m Pig!”)
Kim Yideum is a massively charismatic and idiosyncratic young poet from South Korea: outspoken, daring and flamboyant in her gestures both on and off the page, with killer anti-patriarchal aim. When I first met her, a few years ago, we became close friends. Although she had only read the handful of poems of mine that had been translated into Korean, and I had only read three of her poems that had been translated into English, we immediately formed a close artistic relationship and I set out to get her poems translated into English. Like our mentor, Kim Hyesoon, Kim Yideum’s surreal imagery is driven by a fierce feminism. Like Sylvia Plath, whose work has been important to her, Kim Yideum’s poetry is flagrantly performative and dramatic. But it’s also funny and upsetting. Kim Yideum’s poetry constantly traverses boundaries, taking us into volatile affective registers that refuse convention: “A black whale, panting, swallows a mannequin, no, in the black stomach the mannequin is mincing the whale’s heart with her plastic teeth.” Her poetry moves at a break-neck speed as her speakers dash through a world that is constantly falling apart, constantly haunted, constantly on the verge of the sublime or the worst nightmare: “Suddenly the mask fell off my lover’s face. He was definitely the one that I murdered in the kitchen just this morning. The song All I Ask of You flowed like sticky blood.” In Korea, Kim Yideum has written three books of poetry and two novels. Her first book in English (translated by Jiyoon Lee) will be released later this winter by Action Books.
The Korean poet Yi Sang (1910-1937) burns in me like some unbearably exquisite fuse always at the point of snuffing out. Dead center of an open field there is a flowering tree. In the neighborhood not even one Born the first year of the Japanese Occupation, he worked as an adult in the offices of the Occupiers but was a sort of reverse-Bartleby, contaminating the outlets of the Occupation with art and absurdity to counteract its stifling inertia. That flowering tree with as much ardor as it thought about its thought-about tree opened ardently its blossoms and stood A dandy and a profligate, he wore only white and operated intentionally dysfunctional cafes with furniture you couldn’t sit in, ventures which would spectacularly fail. Frequently ill, he was supported by a sex-worker wife, thus queering the compulsory masculinity of both traditional Korean culture and the militarist Occupation. It cannot go to the tree it thinks about He wrote individual poems of uncanny lyric beauty (like “Flowering Tree”), poetry sequences of weaponized clarity and subversion (“Crow’s Eye View”) and decadent prose works which are heartbreakingly beautiful, too brief, and strange, such as “Wings”, the account of an anorexic, cuckolded dandy enamored of the way morning lights his wife’s perfume bottles in her absence. Wildly I fled For the sake of one flowering tree These parallel lives of art, absurdity, subversion and illness imploded when he secretly seeded a Japanese bureaucratic bulletin with obscene puns at the expense of the government which would only become audible to a Korean-speaker. Betrayed, he was sent to an internment camp. After being released, he died of TB at 27. I really went that far to make such dreamlike mimicry
Yi Sang is a cultural icon in Japan and Korea and for me is a light that never goes out. For my love of Yi Sang and for the strength I draw from him, I am indebted to the translators, scholars, and poets Walter K. Lew, Myong-Hee Kim, Ahn Jung-hyo, James B. Lee, and Don Mee Choi.