It’s the season of travel. Schools are out, the weather is warm, and all over the country, people are preparing for journeys to faraway locations—vacations to new and unfamiliar destinations, but also often returns to the places that they identify as home. Of course, for the immigrant and the child of diaspora, “home” is an inherently complicated construct, riddled through with ghosts—of war, of imperialism, of other kinds of trauma—and with the specters of displacement and isolation and the feeling of perpetual rootlessness. In this June installation of Editors’ Corner, we’re featuring two recent collections by Asian American poets that explore this fraught relationship to geography, migration, and the notion of home.
Melody Gee’s The Dead in Daylight(Cooper Dillon, 2016), her followup to her debut collection (which we previously reviewed here), parses the map of family geography with finely tuned musicality and a delicate and beautifully precise attention to image. In its pages, the reader drifts through an imaginative pastiche that splices together scenes from the domestic and the natural (from the garden to the living room to the hungry sea that laps at the seams of the collection and consumes the speaker’s mother in the final poem) and moves fluidly between the realms of the living, the dead, and the interstitial territory of memory and dream that lies between. At once origin story and narrative of perpetual departure and return, The Dead in Daylight digs undaunted into the wreckage of generational memory, recalling inherited histories of loss and longing and building around them delicate, earthbound constructions: beautiful, otherworldly houses of paper and bone, mud and salt, ink and flesh, that gather together the scattered geographical detritus of the immigrant lens together under their rooves—motherhood and labor, revolution and famine, rituals of birth and burial, the land and the ghosts that inhabit it. The poet intuits the fertile lyric possibility nestled within the silences and undocumented blips in a familial narrative that reaches across continents and generations, and like her speaker, who returns again and again to the garden, she tenderly plants them in earth, where they put down roots and bloom like the speaker’s asclepia (or milkweed plants, favorite flower of the migratory monarch) in “Of What Next,” planted in the faith that what she has buried will one day “call over / butterflies” (16), a crop of brilliant homecomings alighting at journey’s end.
If Gee’s book grapples with a poetics of excavation by rooting, a burrowing into the earth in search of blood and filament with which to anchor the diasporic body, then Singaporean-French-American poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s latest collection, The Ruined Elegance(Princeton, 2015), can be said to point its gaze skyward, engaging in a magpie-like poetics of investigation by assemblage, a searching for new meanings and identities under the vast, universal canopy that hangs above the ruins of language, of history, of justice, of place and identity. The poems in Sze-Lorrain’s collection comprise a deftly curated gallery that takes on images of trauma and war (from a survivor’s account of Ravensbruck to scenes from the Cultural Revolution and from apparently contemporary political prison camps) by overlaying and skillfully collaging them together with ideas and images borrowed from European and Asian cultural touchstones. From the classical musical form of the partita (though not one of Bach’s, the poet is careful to note) to Magritte’s iconic The Son of Man to Joseon brush paintings and translated text borrowed from Chinese poets Zhang Zao and Gu Cheng, Sze-Lorrain carefully builds up layers of meaning and beauty around the rubble of written texts and oral narratives that have been erased by the violence of totalitarianism, the fickleness of memory, and the existential complexity of diasporic identity. She allows the ruins to become a kind of aesthetic in themselves, taking the absences as a kind of new form—startling and intentionally unbeautiful among the threads of the shimmering fabric that she weaves about and beneath them, stitching them together as a practitioner of kintsugi, a Japanese technique in which a shattered vessel is repaired by inlaying gold into the veins created by the cracks and missing pieces, might construct a new type of pot out of something once broken. It is here, in the glinting interstices of these carefully rejoined pieces, that Sze-Lorrain’s migratory speaker makes her home: “I want to honor / the invisible,” she says (5), and later, to “turn this ruined thought / into a poem” (45).
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What books are on your summer reading list this year? We’d love to hear about them! Leave us a comment below or share your best recommendations with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
APIA Heritage Month has come and gone, and in its wake, I’m reminded more than ever of the current stakes for our community. It’s been a tumultuous last few months. Beginning in April, just after AWP and as LR was planning its collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum, a wave of painful incidents once again demonstrated the challenges of Asian American representation. It started when the New Yorker published Calvin Trillin’s racially tone-deaf poem about Chinese food, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” and continued with reports of yet more yellowface casting in Hollywood, a Facebook post by Mark Doty that made sport of the English on a Chinese restaurant’s menu, and, most recently, manifested itself on television, when Ann Coulter insisted that all Asian Americans ought to be referred to as “Mandarins.” With Michael Derrick Hudson’s engagement in literary yellowface in last year’s Best American Poetry and Chris Rock’s use of Asian American children as props at the Oscars still fresh in our memories, we couldn’t be blamed for feeling that lately, the assault has been relentless. Again and again, we’ve seen the Asian American body become yet another object on which others have imposed their own narratives of fear and foreignness. Repeatedly, we’ve found ourselves fighting for the right to own our bodies and the cultural narratives that they inhabit. Throughout all of this, we’ve witnessed the beauty and strength of a community rising up to make itself heard, but we’ve also wrestled with the reality of watching those who’ve spoken out be continually dismissed and silenced.
After Calvin Trillin’s poem was published, Asian American writers all over the nation responded en masse, making their criticisms known on Twitter and Facebook, writing letters to the New Yorker, crafting response poems and parodies (many of which the AAWW later documented in this helpful post at the Margins), publishing critical essays (e.g. Timothy Yu’s prescient essay in the New Republic, Paula Young Lee’s incisive article for Slate, Wendy Chin-Tanner’s thoughtful piece at XO Jane, and Neil Aitken’s analysis for the podcast Racist Sandwich’s blog), and giving interviews on the radio (e.g. Hyphen editor Karissa Chen’s appearance on the Heritage Radio Network show, Eat Your Words). The public backlash to these responses was swift and unmerciful. The Huffington Post published a blog post positing that anger was an inappropriate, even unfair, response because of Trillin’s age. Joyce Carol Oates tweeted a ditty that described Trillin as “misunderstood.” Yu, Chen, and countless others who spoke up were harrassed by strangers on social media who characterized them as hysterical, berated their “oversensitivity,” and called their credentials into question. The message, it appeared, was that Asian Americans’ right to speak about our own cultures and experiences, to tell our own stories on our own terms, did not matter—at least, not as much as protecting the right of a white man with considerable privilege and status to speak for us (even if at our expense).
The public hostility toward those who dared to question Trillin’s poem was clearly symptomatic of the more general failure to acknowledge the nuances of problematic racial discourse in our country, as well as of the ways in which the voices of people of color are constantly “talked over” by white people in positions of relative power. But Calvin Trillin was not the only party to blame. The editors of the New Yorker failed just as much in their roles as literary gatekeepers: first, when they decided to publish Trillin’s poem, and again, when they declined to address readers’ concerns about its appearance in the magazine. As I watched the bitter aftermath of the incident unfold before me on LR’s social media feeds, I was reminded of something that Barbara Jane Reyes had observed during our reading at the Bookbinders Museum in reference to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. The question at the heart of the matter for both Cha and Asian American voices today, Reyes said, is always this: Who gets to speak for us? Who gets to tell our stories?
Publishing’s Diversity Problem
The Trillin incident and others of a similar bent have served to highlight one of the most pressing issues in the contemporary publishing industry: in this country, the people who make decisions about whose work gets published, the people who are responsible for selling books, and the people who review books—essentially, those who serve as the gatekeepers for what literature gets read and how works are received and consumed by the public—are an overwhelmingly homogeneous group. According to a recent survey of the publishing industry by Lee and Low, 86% of publishing executives across the industry are white, as are 82% of editorial staff and 89% of book reviewers. Is it any wonder that, even as the demographics of the US population shift toward greater and greater racial diversity, the face of published literature in our country has remained eerily static, and the mainstream publishing industry has found itself ill equipped (or even seemingly disinclined) to adequately represent diverse literary voices?
Where Do We Go from Here?
It’s clear to us here at LR that there is great hunger and need within our community. We heard several pressing concerns repeatedly expressed at the Asian American caucus at AWP: How do we build safe, alternative spaces for our communities and for our work? How do we get publishers to pay attention to our writing? How do we build understanding of and appreciation for the value of storytelling, literature, and art within our communities and families? How can we assist students who face lack of institutional support within their programs? How do we ensure that the people who do the work of standard-bearing and gatekeeping in our communities receive credit and compensation for their work, and how do we make sure that we do not allow them to burn out?
We have a tall order set before us. So where can we begin? Here are just a few thoughts.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we interviewed leading scholar and poet Timothy Yu, author of 100 Chinese Silences (Les Figues Press, 2015), Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford, 2009), and the three chapbooks 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish Press, 2012), Journey to the West (Barrow Street, 2006), and Kiss the Stranger (Corollary Press, 2012). Yu is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he spoke with us, among other things, about the need for greater historical contextualization of Asian American poetry, the process of writing 100 Chinese Silences, and the vibrant relationship between his creative and scholarly work.
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LANTERN REVIEW: Within the literary and academic world, you function in a variety of roles. What’s it like to wear so many different hats? We’re especially curious about the ways in which these roles (poet, cultural critic, scholar, teacher, editor, etc.) overlap, or if there are times when you find them in tension with one another.
TIMOTHY YU: I’ve always written poetry, but for a long time my identity as a poet was peripheral to my professional identity as a scholar. I did a PhD in literature, not an MFA, and until pretty recently I never really published much of my poetry. There’s a lot I could say about this, but I think that it was my scholarly training, and in particular my study of Asian American poetry, that gave me a greater sense of confidence in my work, and ultimately a clearer sense of what I wanted my poetry to do.
But it was definitely a struggle along the way sometimes. In grad school, although quite a few of my classmates were also creative writers, there was an old-school sense among faculty that being a creative writer was not compatible with the “serious” identity of scholar. I kept my poetry going largely by finding a community outside of the university—I went to readings, joined a writing group, sometimes took creative writing workshops elsewhere during the summers.
It’s really only in the past few years that my roles as poet and scholar/critic have begun to converge. A lot of that has to do with my finding a community of other Asian American poets through Kundiman. Although I had studied Asian American poetry for some years, I don’t think I began to see myself as an Asian American poet until I became a Kundiman fellow and saw what being part of an Asian American literary community could mean. I think this understanding has allowed my scholarly work increasingly to feed my creative work, which is basically what led to 100 Chinese Silences.
Now I think I’m experiencing this wonderful feedback loop where my creative work is also pushing my criticism to new places. Probably the best example of this was in the controversy around Calvin Trillin’s poem in the New Yorker, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” My response was both creative and critical: I wrote a parody of Trillin’s poem that was published on Angry Asian Man, which led to me getting interviewed on NPR, which was followed by my being asked to write an essay for the New Republic. And in that piece, I tried to combine my scholarly knowledge with the emotion I was feeling as a member of the Asian American poetry community—which I think made all the difference to its success.
LR: You’re the author of the chapbook 15 Chinese Silences, which was published in 2012. Four years and eighty-five Chinese silences later, the book-length 100 Chinese Silences is in print. Can you tell us a bit about how this project evolved? How did it find its trajectory?
TY: The Chinese Silences began when Billy Collins came to Madison to do a reading. There were something like 1,200 people there! Anyway, Collins read a poem called “Grave,” in which he is standing at the graves of his parents, and he says that his father’s silence was like “the one hundred different kinds of silence according to the Chinese belief.” Now, I’m not an expert on all things Chinese, but that didn’t sound familiar to me. And then at the end of the poem, Collins admits that the idea of 100 Chinese silences was something he had “just made up.” In my annoyance, I immediately vowed that I would write these 100 Chinese silences, although at the time I didn’t know what I meant by that.
I started off by simply writing a parody of “Grave,” one that tried to turn the idea of “Chinese silence” on its head. I quickly discovered that Collins had, in fact, written a lot of poems about China (or Asia), and so I continued by parodying those poems. Collins provided me with more than enough material for the first fifteen poems in the series, which became the Tinfish chapbook 15 Chinese Silences.
I soon realized that the project, which had started off as a bit of a lark, was leading me into deeper waters, and that to explore them, I was going to need to move beyond Collins toward a broader investigation of how China and Asia are portrayed in contemporary American poetry and culture. It turned out that there were many more poems than I expected, by a wide range of poets; some I just found by doing things like searching the Poetry magazine archives for “China.” The poems I found ranged from elegant invocations of Chinese poetry to cringingly offensive uses of stereotype and pidgin. After a certain point, people actually started sending me examples—“here’s a good one for you!”—and so I pretty much had an inexhaustible supply of material.
Of course, the tradition of poetic orientalism I’m exploring isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon; it goes at least back to the dawn of the 20th century and modernism, so at a certain point, I had to begin delving back into that earlier tradition. I did this a bit tentatively at first, starting with a parody of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” (No. 38) and eventually reaching back to modernism: Marianne Moore, W.B. Yeats, and, of course, Ezra Pound, whose poetry is the subject of the final dozen or so poems.
So, the sequence unfolds pretty much in the order it was written, but that order does represent a fairly conscious movement from contemporary poems about Chinese stuff back to the modernist roots of American poetic orientalism.
LR: Given the book’s wide variety of source material, how did your creative process differ with poems responding to, say, Collins and Tony Hoagland (living, contemporary poets), as opposed to Marianne Moore and Pound (deceased, “canonical” voices)? Or did it? What about your responses to more journalistic sources, such as the speech by Newt Gingrich or David Sedaris’s piece on China?
TY: Rewriting Moore and Pound was certainly more intimidating than rewriting Collins or Hoagland! For the more contemporary writers, my tone sometimes bordered on the snarky. But of course, there was some element of reverence in my approach to figures like Moore and Pound, even as I was trying to mount a critique of their work. It’s probably why I put off grappling with them until much later in the series, when I felt I had more confidence in what I was doing.
Responding to some of the journalistic sources was actually fun, because those were the places in the series where I had a bit more freedom. Much of the series was written under fairly strong constraint; I strove to mirror the style and even the line structure of the originals. But with something like the response to Sedaris, I was able to play around more freely with the grotesque imagery of disgust Sedaris uses in his description of China. The most fun piece in this regard was No. 26, which collaged reporting on Wendi Deng (the then-wife of Rupert Murdoch, who made headlines by slapping down a protester who tried to hit Murdoch with a pie) to the tune of Blake’s “The Tyger.”
LR: How have audiences responded to 100 Chinese Silences?
TY: People seem to like and respond to these poems more than anything I’ve ever written—which of course I have mixed feelings about, since nearly all of them are rewritings of other poets’ work! But I think that is part of the project—trying to use the pleasure and humor of these parodies as a Trojan horse for a certain kind of critique.
I’ve been very gratified by the way that Asian American readers, in particular, have responded to the work—they’ve really embraced it warmly as a way of talking back to a certain tradition, which has been so important to my being able to complete it. I’ve heard a little skepticism from some readers about the way I take on certain poets, Pound in particular, who are not as easy targets as, say, Collins. I certainly think that the poems where I’m rewriting canonical writers are the riskiest and the most open to ambivalent interpretation.
LR: As a literary journal dedicated to the promotion and publication of Asian American poetry, Lantern Review has thought quite a bit about what it means to be an advocate for change in today’s literary climate. In your opinion, what is the most pressing cultural work that needs to be done right now?
TY: I think there is a growing awareness that the voices of people of color need to be heard, and indeed, need to be front and center, in contemporary culture, but there is also awareness of how far we are from having the kind of cultural discourse where that is the case. I think it’s absolutely vital for Asian American writers and other writers of color to continue to build their own spaces—whether that’s publications like Lantern Review or organizations like Kundiman—while also demanding more mainstream representation; the two are not mutually exclusive but go hand in hand. I also think it’s crucial for us to provide a greater sense of the history of racial discourse; the conversations and conflicts we’re having today are not new, but emerge from long histories and deep contexts. This is where I think scholars/critics and poets absolutely must be talking to and learning from each other. Simply having a sense that there is an Asian American literary tradition is an incredible boon to a young Asian American writer.
LR: What are some of the most exciting things happening in Asian American poetry today? What are you currently reading?
TY: The breadth and depth of what’s happening in Asian American poetry is just astonishing. To me, Asian American poetry is a space where the lyrical, the experimental, the performative, the political—things too often separated in the larger poetry world—can engage and infuse each other. Just looking at my nightstand, I see amazing new and recent books by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Brandon Shimoda, Khaty Xiong, Nicholas Wong; books by international Asian writers like Sarah Howe and Fred Wah. And the wider world is taking notice.
LR: After 100 Chinese Silences, what’s next? Can you tell us about any new projects currently underway?
TY: I’m working on a new sequence called Chinese Dreams, and yes, it’s another rewriting—this time of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. I’m fascinated and deeply troubled by Berryman’s framing of his anguished personal lyrics through racially stereotyped language, and I’ve been trying to see what I can do with that from an Asian American perspective.
Over the course of this National Poetry Month, we’ve been curating a conversation about Asian American poetry and the book as object. If you’ve been following along with our collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum these past couple of weeks, you’ll also have noticed our thematic emphasis on the chapbook and its unique relationship to the print traditions of poetry as a genre. Today, in continuation of that discussion, we’re pleased to be able to present a conversation with poet-scholars and two-time chapbook authors Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee. Chen, the author of Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire(Porkbelly Press, 2015), and Rhee, the author of Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love(Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Yellow(Tinfish Press, 2011), spoke to us about the delights and challenges of the chapbook as a form and shared some of their experiences from the process of shaping and finding publishing homes for their chaps.
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LR: What appeals to you about the chapbook as a form, as distinct from the more traditional format of the full-length poetry collection?
CC: I love that you can read a chapbook in one sitting. I mean, I do that with full-length collections I love, but a chapbook feels like such a good, healthy portion of poetry. You have just enough energy to devour it properly.
I love working with small presses. And I’ve been so lucky. Porkbelly Press did my first chapbook, and I remember giving the editor, Nicci Mechler, all these different ideas for cover art (maybe a train? a moon? a single flower? multiple flowers but not too many?)—and she just knocked it out of the park. I think that’s the first time I’ve said “knocked it out of the park.” Well, written it. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud. I would say it out loud for Nicci Mechler and Porkbelly Press. Those cleavers. That perfect purple. Two of Cups Press did my second chapbook, and we were able to use Lizzy DuQuette’s fabulous image for the cover. I’ve felt so listened to, cared for, by these presses. At AWP this year, Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, the editor at Two of Cups, organized chapbook signings for her authors and a last-minute-but-really-fun joint reading in her hotel room. With both chapbooks, we ran into formatting issues (my lines just got too long!)—both times, the editors knocked it out of the park.
MR: I love the ephemeral nature of chapbooks, how artistic the chapbooks can be, and the possibilities of risk (as poet, as publisher) within the chapbook form.
Moreover I like how chapbooks are not tied to the capitalistic market (as limited as it is for po-biz); there’s something pure about them. This kind of poetry isn’t really about money.
In addition to editing my first chapbook, Susan graciously wrote a blurb for my second chapbook, which also speaks to the generative relationships when working with an editor on a chapbook of poetry. I learned tremendously from Susan and count her as a formative mentor. A precious gift.
LR: Each of your chapbooks has a unique project or conceit that shapes and informs it. Can you describe for us how these projects came about?
CC: For Set the Garden on Fire, I was interested in the child’s voice, the queer child’s voice, the voice of a child of immigrants. So a lot of the poems in this first chapbook wrestle with childhood, early adolescence, and engage coming of age in this very intersectional way. Companion poems like “Write a Letter to the Class About Your Summer Vacation” and “Write a Letter to Your Mother About Your Longest Winter” helped structure the collection—echo and break, circularity as well as surprise, I hope. Flowers and fires, yes, but donuts also play an important role. The chapbook is full of questions about what tenderness means and what kinship or community could look like.
Kissing the Sphinx is much less autobiographical. Or less directly so. I think of it as my chapbook of wacky love poems. There’s a hot air balloon and fuchsia snow pants. There’s Eros and Mariah Carey. One of the speakers makes a trip from Helsinki to Shanghai that I’ve never made. I had to Google how many hours that flight is. The loose arc of the collection goes from early (attempts at) dating to this (attempt at a) more serious relationship. The chapbook wonders, what is “serious” and what is a “relationship”? There is also Tom Daley and a Russian driving instructor.
Yellow was a poetic investigation of . . . [questions] around meaning and difference. But it was also an experiment on poetic form and how formal qualities shape “the racial” and color. The title poem, “Yellow,” was my first conscious attempt to fuse the two (formal + racial) and signaled a turn for my relationship with poetry. . . . [At the time of writing Yellow,] I was inspired by French avant-garde poets of the 1960s such as the Oulipo and Stephane Mallarme, but I was also responding to avant-garde poetry and the privilege of racial omission when utilizing color in poetry, for example. With the exception of “Body Maps,” the poems in the collection were all written within a span of six months and with experimentation as a key focus of writing during that time.
The chapbook is a section of a poetry manuscript I am completing, tentatively entitled “I Love Juana” and Other Poemas, a collection on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, and protest.
Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love came about via various research I was doing on robots and culture for my PhD work at UC Berkeley. At the time, I found that poetry-writing about robots was an interesting way to engage and question demarcations of difference through the science fictional. It was also a reprieve from the scholarly research. In every sense, the robot love relations in Radio Heart are queer relations, but not explicitly so. It was refreshing to take a different turn from my previous writing, which deals pretty centrally with issues of difference (race, class, sexuality) and to explore how science fiction poetry can ask questions on difference, but through worldbuilding. However, I still write explicitly political poetry (Yellow is a section of a poetry manuscript [as mentioned above] I am completing on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, protest); it’s simply part of my orientation and practice, I realize—activism that seeps through into the poetic. But I also turn to science fiction as a way to worldbuild other possibilities. My next book is about space exploration and Mars.
LR: While writing each of your chaps, how did you go about deciding which poems belonged in the manuscript? Were there any poems that didn’t make the cut?
CC: The page limit that each press provides in their submission guidelines was very helpful. It seems the typical chapbook is between twenty and thirty pages. I like this. It makes the cuts easier for me, because I can just blame the press’s page limit. Sorry, poem about two male astronauts having a homoerotic moment right before getting blasted into space—it’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the page limit. A bit more seriously, though: I consider which emotional notes have been hit and whether I’ve been banging one gong a bit too frequently. I think: the gong of sadness over a breakup has been hit. Or: the gong of being silly about homoeroticism has been hit. I want to keep the psychological or narrative arc of the collection clear and tight.
MR: All the poems in the original manuscript made the cut, but I would add, I have a section entitled “Radio Heart” that contains four-line poems. The section was inspired by the work of Descartes on the body (Discourse on Method). I decided to leave the poems on separate pages in the chapbook, but in the larger book manuscript, they are all placed on one page, as one poem.
LR: Of the poems that appear in your chaps, is there one of which you’re most proud? We’d love to hear its story if you’d care to share it.
CC: I’m pretty fond of “Race to the Tree” from Set the Garden on Fire. This fondness came after deep frustration. This poem took forever. I started it in college. Then I couldn’t look at it for a couple years. In the second year of my MFA, I looked at it again. Bruce Smith, one of my brilliant teachers at Syracuse, was teaching us about the ballad form. Something clicked. Or not really “clicked,” because the poem isn’t in ballad form. But something about quatrains and a dark night and a song that is also a narrative and then the three sections . . . it took me a long time to think of the poem in such formal terms. The emotions in the poem were/are so volatile. The night I sort of accidentally came out to my parents. The night of the argument that would push me back into the closet. The night I thought I would run away and never return. The night I saw my parents as strangers (and I’m sure they saw me that way, too). So. Then. Writing, rewriting. I revised it again when it went into my MFA thesis. When it went into the chapbook. Now the poem’s in my full-length book. I’m pretty sure it’s done, now. But when I say, at the end of the poem, “I was 13, I am 13, it is/night”—every time I read that aloud, it’s true.
MR: This is a great question! I’m pretty proud of “Beam, Robot.” It was originally published in Hyphen magazine’s literary section that is edited by Karissa Chen. Karissa is a fantastic editor, and she had some really wonderful words of advice on how to enliven and tighten the poem’s language and world. When I was interviewed on the poem for the magazine, it helped me reflect on the project as a whole. It is a rare opportunity to work so closely on a poem with an amazing editor like Karissa, and I’m really glad about how it came out.
LR: Figuring out how to navigate the publishing world can be a notoriously difficult process for emerging poets of color. Can you tell us about the decision process that went into choosing the publisher for each of your chapbooks? Do you have any advice for Asian American poets who are hoping to find the right home for a first chapbook manuscript?
CC: I’ve answered this one a bit with the first question. But yes. The right homes. The editors who will listen and care and listen. My advice to Asian American poets wanting to publish a chapbook: check to see if the press has published any Asian American poets before. More than one? Look at the submission guidelines. Are the editors explicit about seeking and supporting work by writers of color, queer writers, queer writers of color? Do they use this language? Are they explicit about being feminist, antiracist? What is the exact language of the guidelines page or the call for submissions or the “about” page? For example, Porkbelly Press describes itself as such: “We’re a queer-friendly, feminist press open to all, and encourage works from authors all along the identity spectrum.” And: ask folks who have worked with that press before. Their experiences.
Also, the design and production quality matter. The cover art matters. Not while you’re writing, of course. But while you’re deciding where to send the writing out. If you can, obtain a chapbook from a press you’re considering (and sometimes, the submission fee is a chapbook purchase because the press wants you to be familiar with what they do). Hold the physical object in your hands. Turn the pages. Is it a beautiful thing? Is it an artifact you want in your hands, your home? Is it a home for poems? Could you see yourself with a chapbook like that, reading from it, to an audience, one lovely day?
MR: With Yellow, I was lucky because my friend (and my formative mentor) Craig Santos Perez recommended me to Susan Schultz as a potential poet for her new series. It turned out to be the best home for Yellow, given Susan’s commitment to experimental poetics, Korean American poetics, and poetics of the Pacific. With Finishing Line Press, I submitted in part because I loved their chapbooks and the attention they give to women’s poetry. I am thinking especially of [LR editor] Iris A. Law’s chapbook Periodicity (which I taught and reviewed) and Karen McPherson’s Sketching Elise. Both are wondrous chapbooks.
For emerging poets of color and Asian American poets, I would recommend seeking out a publisher with a sensibility you feel kin to. This may mean seeking out chapbooks you love and checking out who published those collections, and submitting accordingly. Ultimately, you want an apt home that can take care of your poems.
I just received the second printing of Radio Heart, and it’s been interesting to think about the myriad of approaches to chapbook publishing. My publisher made some changes to the second version, and it feels more like a book. But in many ways, I miss the first version of Radio Heart, the staples (the second printing is perfect bound), the colored vellum (the second printing has a new image of the publisher’s logo), and the paper (the second printing is glossy). The second printing feels more like a book, while the first printing really feels like a chapbook (more porous in its paper materials and ephemeral in its staples).
I am getting used to this second version, but the first edition will always be dear to me, most certainly for the same reasons I love poetry chapbooks (as opposed to full-length books).
My friend the amazing poet Neil Aitken consoled me in saying that the second version just makes the first version more special. I will heed his expertise, as it makes me realize the experience of chapbooks: how limited they are, but also how special.
LR: You’re both academics as well as poets [Rhee is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon; Chen is an English and creative writing PhD candidate at Texas Tech University]. In what ways has your critical scholarship informed your creative work? How do you balance your scholarly pursuits with the labor that it takes to promote, sell, and market your chaps and other published creative work?
CC: I’ll start with the second question . . . when I first joined Twitter, I almost broke down and sobbed, I was so overwhelmed. Information overload. And although it was the reason I made a Twitter account, I just hated being self-promotional. Which, now, I understand is a necessary part of being an author, especially now, especially as a poet. I don’t have an agent or a publicist. Editors and presses help. But folks seem most interested in reading and/or buying my work if I’m the one telling them about it. I mean. I want to share the work. I want the work to do things in the world. I want the work to be useful, in some way, to someone. Still, the publishing author is different from the writing poet. I don’t know that I’ve balanced it, yet. Or maybe each day is a different attempt at balancing, some more successful than others. The poet Scott Woods made a beautiful and important post on Facebook the other week, basically insisting that you should “put your book on the table” at readings and other events. Take some healthy pride in this work you’ve made. Join the literary conversation, which is certainly happening on Twitter, as well.
My scholarly work focuses on contemporary US poets of color. Recently, I’ve written essays about Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Robert Hayden, Nikky Finney, and Aracelis Girmay. These essays need more work before I can seriously consider sending any of them out. I’m interested in notions of the transnational and the planetary, transgressive conceptions (and enactments!) of space, and large scales of time that challenge me to see strange connections between poets and poetries (poetics and ethics, as well . . . ). When Finney excavates a prehistoric space in one of her poems, I follow and try to read the prehistory within the history, within the now. When Girmay suggests that the donkey is closer to “us” than we might first believe, I try to believe and read the donkey in how poets speak and sing and what this donkey song has to do with justice and grief. The poems I’m writing now are grappling with grief, are grieving—my partner’s mother passed away from cancer last fall—and asking questions about education or learning. What does the university provide? What does the university police? What other “schools” do I need to explore? Is there a “school” in prehistoric aliveness, a “school” in donkey song that I need to enroll in?
MR: Throughout graduate school, it wasn’t really hard to balance poetry and scholarship, because it all seemed to be part of the same practice: questioning, investigating, writing . . . looking back, I think it wasn’t challenging to balance both because I didn’t actively seek publication for my poetry. It really remained a practice, and I simply published when I was invited to submit and very occasionally sent out work (perhaps once every three months or so). I did very limited publicizing for Yellow, and ironically, because of my scholarship, I was at a critical theory seminar at the University of Hawai’i that summer the chapbook was published (which is where Tinfish is based), and so it was poetic kismet in a way. I was able to have a “launch reading” in Hawai’i, with Craig, Susan, and others, because of the scholarly training I was engaging in at the time.
I guess though, now that I am out of graduate school, and teaching a full load—time, my time, feels much more limited. Two years ago, I was also given some formative advice from a cherished mentor to send out my work more often. I waited a few years between Yellow (2011) and Radio Heart (2015) and upon my mentor’s advice took more time to send out work, which is how Radio Heart came about.
I would say helping promote Radio Heart has taken more time in terms of interviews and other kinds of publicity and readings. I am grateful, because like this interview, it is a generative process. But the work of promoting and submitting is such a different animal than writing. I really prefer the latter rather than the former.
LR: One of the things that we love to do at Lantern Review is to continually highlight new work for our readers. What are a few of your own favorite chapbooks by APIA writers that you would recommend?
MR: I second Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary. Neil Aitken’s Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl, 2016). [Also,] not APIA, but pretty fabulous and we have a Salvi-Kore connection, and I love her chapbooks: Raquel Gutiérrez, Breaking up with Los Angeles (Econo Textual Objects, 2014).
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Chen Chen is the author of two chapbooks, Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015). His full-length collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was selected by Jericho Brown for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and will be published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in spring 2017. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.
Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooksYellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) andRadio Heart; or How Robots Fall out of Love(Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her literary fellowships include Kundiman, Squaw Valley, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship. She holds a PhD in ethnic and new media studies from UC Berkeley and teaches in women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.
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[Editors’ Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Susan Schultz’s name and, at Margaret Rhee’s request, to clarify Craig Santos Perez’s role as her mentor as well as a friend.]
We’re excited to announce that we have a guest post up on the American Bookbinders Museum’s blog this afternoon. LR editor Iris writes about the history of the chapbook and its importance to the modern poetry scene and describes four chapbooks by some of the poets who are featured in our ongoing collaboration with the museum for National Poetry Month:
Click on over to read about Monica Mody’s Travel and Risk, Barbara Jane Reyes’s For the City that Nearly Broke Me, Candy Shue’s You Know Where You’ve Been By Where You End Up, and Debbie Yee’s Handmade Rabbit Society, and please don’t forget to stop by the museum tomorrow night (Thursday, April 21st), where we’ll be taking over their Third Thursday event series with more work by Monica, Barbara, Candy, Debbie, Jason Bayani, and Brynn Saito. You’ll get the chance to view pieces that each poet read last Saturday, to respond in writing, and to construct and bind a mini chapbook of your own to take home.
For more information, please see the Facebook page for the event as well as our previous blog post that describes our collaboration with the museum in more detail. And if you’re enjoying our focus on the chapbook, stay tuned for a dual interview about the chapbook with poets Margaret Rhee and Chen Chen next week. There’s plenty of goodness still to come before National Poetry Month is up!
Happy National Poetry Month! We’re back from AWP Los Angeles and are ready to take on April full-steam ahead.
This month, we are pleased to announce that Lantern Review is collaborating with the American Bookbinders Museum, a new and incredibly unique space in San Francisco that’s dedicated to the history of bookbinding, to celebrate National Poetry Month. Together with the museum, we’ll be producing two special events that showcase Asian American poetry in conversation with bookmaking and the printed page:
On April 16th at 7 pm, we will be hosting a reading at the museum featuring six award-winning Asian American poets (Barbara Jane Reyes, Brynn Saito, Debbie Yee, Candy Shue, Jason Bayani, and Monica Mody) who will be presenting work that explores the thematic connections between bookbinding, paper, Asian American history, and the San Francisco Bay Area itself. Books will be for sale after the reading, and poets will be available to sign copies for audience members. Admission is $5.00 ($2.50 for students, children under 10 free; no one will be turned away for lack of funds), with all proceeds going toward supporting the museum’s operations. (Please see our Facebook event for this reading here.)
We also invite you to join us on April 21st from 5:30 to 8:00 pm, when we’ll take over the museum’s regular Third Thursday event with more Asian American poetry. For this free, public, drop-in event, mounted broadsides of some of the poems read on the 16th will be on display in the museum’s gallery, and visitors will be able to interact with and respond to the work in the context of the binding and printing machines and archival materials in the gallery by creating hand-crafted mini poetry chapbooks of their own. (Please see our Facebook event for this evening here.)
Both events will take place in the American Bookbinders Museum’s building at 355 Clementina Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. If you’re based in the Bay Area, we hope you’ll be able to come out and join us on one or both evenings! We are so excited to get to partner with the museum and (now that we are officially based in the Bay) are thrilled to have the opportunity to celebrate Poetry Month by highlighting some of the amazing Asian American poetry that is being produced right in our backyard.
What will you be doing to celebrate National Poetry Month this year? Will you be attending any local events celebrating Asian American poetry in your community? Please let us know about them in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook—we’d love to help you spread the word!
It’s that time of year again! AWP 2016 starts this week, and as has been our tradition in the past, we’ve put together a guide to APIA poetry-related happenings at the conference, featuring panels, readings, and offsite events that might be of interest to our readers, below. As a bonus, we’ve also created a free companion to the bookfair that you can download at the end of this post. So get out your planners and calendar apps! We hope you’ll find this information useful—but even more so, we hope you’ll enjoy getting to engage with the extraordinary wealth of events celebrating the creation, dissemination, and teaching of APIA poetry at AWP this year.
Please note: this list is by no means comprehensive. We have tried our best to curate a sampling of APIA poetry- and publishing-related items below, but we encourage our readers to check out any of the vast number of other panels, readings, and offsite events featuring individual APIA writers (including many past LR contributors) at the conference this year.
Where to Find Us
The Lantern Review team will be attending the conference this year, but unlike in previous years, we won’t be stationed at a table in the bookfair. Instead, you can find us floating around at some of the panels and readings listed below. We’ll also be selling books for Kundiman at the Literaoke offsite event on Friday night, and you can catch us at the Asian American literary caucus on Thursday evening. We’d love it if you stopped by to say “hello”!
Can’t make it out to Los Angeles for the conference but still want to be in the know? Follow us on Twitter or Instagram (@LanternReview) for live updates throughout the weekend.
AWP 2016 is just around the corner (it’s hard to believe that it’s already next week!), and the Lantern Review team is hard at work preparing to dive into the fray. We’ve written in the past about how important it is for writers of color to optimize community-building opportunities at AWP and conferences like it. That’s easy enough to do if you’re somewhat established and have contacts within an existing network. But for emerging writers, networking at big conferences can sometimes feel anonymous and bewildering. During my first writing conference, I had no idea how to begin connecting with people. What was the appropriate way to strike up a conversation with a poet after a reading? Was I supposed to bring copies of my CV to the bookfair with me? I ended up figuring out most of these things by trial and error. (For the record, there’s no need for CVs at the bookfair!)
Since then, I (and we, as a team here at Lantern Review) have been to many more conferences. We’ve been the editors standing behind the bookfair table talking to first-year MFA students. We’ve been the panelists nodding at shy attendees who’ve worked up the courage to ask us questions. And over the years, we’ve learned that with a little bit of strategic preparation, it’s possible for an emerging writer without many contacts to make a great impression and establish lasting connections at an event of even AWP’s scale.
Here are three simple things that we think every writer should do before a conference in order to lay the groundwork for effective networking:
1. Establish an internet presence.
You’ll meet a lot of people at any conference, but in order to facilitate follow-up, you’ll need to provide your new contacts with a place to land if they look you up online. Of course, not everyone is into social media (and we like what Molly Gaudry has to say about not trying to fake your enthusiasm for it). But even if you can’t tell a hashtag from a Twitter handle, we highly recommend that you create some way for people to search for and find you on the internet after the conference has ended. At the most basic level, we suggest using a free service to set up a simple website or blog for yourself. We know lots of writers who have made great use of sites like Wix and Tumblr, but our personal favorite is WordPress.com, which offers a wide selection of free design templates; employs an easy-to-use interface that doesn’t require coding knowledge; and comes with a powerful website stats plugin that lets you see who is visiting your site and how they’re finding it. However you choose to do it, the following two tips are key: keep the focus of an author website on yourself rather than on a specific book or project of yours (this will give the site greater longevity), and make sure that the full name under which you publish your creative work is in your URL, profile, and/or username (otherwise, readers and editors may have difficulty finding you).
If you already have your own website and/or active social media accounts, the few days before a conference are a good time to make sure that everything there is in order: make sure your most recent publications are listed on your portfolio page; update your author bio and photograph; check that your list of upcoming events is current. After a conference, when you’re no longer interacting with other writers face to face, your web presence is everything, so doing the necessary maintenance work on the front end will enable you to put your best foot forward when you step onto the convention floor.
As we announced last week, we’re back and more excited than ever to embark on a new journey with Lantern Review. It’s been a fruitful, restorative two years since we published our last issue, and as we’ve begun to ask ourselves what’s next, we’ve found ourselves reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned by going on hiatus.
Here are a few things we’ve discovered from taking our much-needed rest.
Self-care is important. Nobody can do everything. There are seasons when it is necessary to attend to the non-art-related things in our lives—to family, to one’s health, to relationships, to the keeping of a roof over one’s head. These are the things that enable us to create making art. And it’s imperative not to neglect them if we are to live healthy, fulfilled, and sustainable lives both on and off the page.
Keeping a notebook is a poet’s lifeline. It’s a record of the vital, ongoing dialogue with oneself, one’s art, one’s reading. Observations, notes, drafts of book reviews, quotations—when kept in a notebook, they become a record of the poetic sensibility in motion.
Poetry can create family, but sustaining that family requires work. When we started LR in 2009, we were still MFA students, not too long out of college, and, like most young poets of color, hungering after a community to call our own. Over the years, our work on LR has provided us with a rare gift, in that it has made our chosen literary family uniquely accessible to us. So when we made a conscious choice to step back from the magazine, we had to find other ways to engage. What we learned in the months that followed is that often, community is one what makes of it. Sometimes it finds you on its own, but for the most part, one must seek it out, carving it out of the rock if necessary, to survive. How does one do this? By reading more books by poets of color. By writing to those poets. By bringing them into your spaces. By teaching their work in your classroom. Poetry knits artists together, but like any family, it takes effort to foster growth and belonging.
That’s right—we’re back! We’ve officially ended our hiatus and are thrilled to announce that we’re rested and ready for this new season of Lantern Review.
For the very first time, our cofounders are living on the same coast, not to mention in the same geographic region: the San Francisco Bay Area! We look forward to discovering what it means to rebuild our editorial endeavor in the context of the Bay Area’s thriving literary arts scene, in the wonderful company of so many other editors, poets, publishers, and artists of color. We also foresee many more exciting opportunities to cultivate regionally based community, though we’ll continue to function with our national and international readership in mind.
Along with an eventual relaunch of the magazine, you can expect new, exciting content on our blog, which we’ll continue to update regularly, and a fresh look—which, hopefully, you’re already enjoying. We’re starting small, but, as before, our goal is to provide a clear, up-to-date sense of what’s happening in the Asian American poetry scene and areas of related interest.
Later this month, you can also expect to see us at AWP. We’ll be there, cruising the book fair, attending panels, and looking to connect with Lantern Review readers and contributors—both past and future. We’ll be posting more soon about where we’ll be during the conference, so if you plan to attend, be sure to look out for that information, and please come find us in LA!
For now, stay tuned for more updates on our blog, and if we don’t see you at AWP 2016, we hope we’ll get to hang out with you sometime in the Bay!