Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.
It is by speaking of the “assumption of the myths of a race not [her] own, a race nearly annihilated by [her] kind” that Susanna Moore begins her quasi-memoir, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai‘i (National Geographic 2003). She describes her “self-delighting pride at being a liminal participant in an authentic culture that continues, despite attempts to the contrary, to fear the ghostly night marchers . . .” This prefatory remark appears to apologize for her presumptions as a white woman writing about an island where she grew up with considerable privilege. Yet, notice the qualifiers—“self-delighting,” “liminal,” “authentic”—as they progress from the private to the public along a claim toward ownership. Identity politics frustrate me to no end, but as poetry and nonfiction on the subject of Hawaii have been coming across my desk recently, I have started to see that perhaps nobody can uncontestably write or rewrite Hawaii, not even those with genealogical ties to the native Hawaiians: for to call them natives today is to codify culture into a prelapsarian nostalgia, to selectively deny cultural change. I also wonder about recent mainland literatures about Hawaii and to what degree their conservatism and transgressions are intrinsic. I intend to look briefly here at three writers who claim a conflicted connection to Hawaii through the tension of poetic language: Susanna Moore, who lived on Oahu from early adolescence until she was a teenager; Juliana Spahr, who taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for half a decade; and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, who has been “going home” to the Big Island from the Midwest since her parents retired there. Each of their works brushes against the usual tropes that brand a Hawaiian text when written in English, such as provincial or pastoral expectations, a stylized pidgin lexicon, and a mystified engagement with history. Yet, our three writers clearly feel their outsiderness, and, in order to make meaning and make meaning communicable as required by their poetics, they find nuanced rhetorical forms to grant themselves permission. read more…
To round off our APIA Heritage Month celebration, we sat down with Joseph O. Legaspi and Sarah Gambito, the co-founders of Kundiman—a nonprofit that serves young and emerging Asian American poets through its retreats, reading series, and community resources—to ask about their thoughts as the organization approaches its tenth year.
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LR: Kundiman is coming up on its tenth anniversary this year. How are you feeling about its turning a decade old? What have been some of your favorite moments from your involvement with it over the last ten years?
JL: Kundiman going on 10 years is astounding to me. Wow! My feelings are overwhelmingly mixed, all strong emotions: for the most part I feel elation and pride, partially with dread and anxiety because there is still so much to do. The question is where do we go from here? We have a decade worth of accomplishments—most prominently, nearly 60 books and chapbooks published by Kundiman fellows—but how do we get to the next level where we are more stable and branch out and empower more Asian American writers. Oh, it is a celebration, of course, but now we’re working on how to sustain Kundiman for the next 10 years, and the next . . . As for my favorite moments, there are just too many. Lawson Inada at the Chinese buffet. Marilyn Chin dancing. The fellows’ sandwich-making contest. All closing circles. The singing, the camaraderie, the poems. The poems. The whole roller coaster [of] experience[s] as some of the most joyous in my life.
SG: I agree. It overwhelms me that it has been 10 years. We’ve now seen an arc of fellows coming into their own—literally growing up before our eyes. We’ve read their poems, their books, attended their weddings, celebrated the births of children. It has been such a privilege to be able to witness fellows mentor each other, to become each other’s best and most trusted readers. What I love is that we’ve become a family in ways that are mysterious and then not mysterious. (This past winter, I hosted around 15 fellows at my apartment and cooked huge pots of ma po tofu and fried rice.) As for favorite moments, there are so many. I loved the Kundiman reading where Bei Dao and a fellow who had never read in public before and was just finishing college, Yael Villafranca, read together. I was thunderstruck because I realized that I was witnessing something that was so hard-worn, rare and precious: the knitting of generations of Asian and Asian American poets. I love the fellow toasts at graduation where we get to see how fellows have been so aware of each other and are praising each other. I loved Kimiko Hahn saying “I give myself permission to be a writer. I’ve worked too hard to not do this” and then watching the fellows invoke this throughout the retreat in their own ways, both literary and personal. I loved having Tan Lin at Kundiman and watching him blow workshops out of the water and seeing fellows reorient their relationship to what words can do.
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Barbara Jane Reyes.
First, get that “I am APIA” identity poem, that “Yellow Power,” “Brown Power,” “Brown and Proud” poem out of your system. I wholeheartedly believe that we all need to write one (or two, or a few) of these at some point in our development as writers, especially in this American context, where we are described as “minority,” or “alien,” or worse things. Such mis-labelings are assaults upon our humanness. Now, oftentimes, as an initial phase of our political education, to defend ourselves against what we can rightfully view as attack—i.e. “what are you,” “you’re not from here,” “you don’t belong here”—we assume a defensive posture. We respond in defiance; we unleash the righteous anger.
Do not let go of that anger. Do not let anyone tell you that anger is not valid, not useful, not civilized, that it has no place in Poetry.
Salman Rushdie once said, “We are described into corners and then we must describe ourselves out of corners,” this little snippet of a quote that’s stayed with me for a long time.
Being described into corners is surely reason to be angry. And so how can we describe our way out of corners?
Minding the “Ethnic” “Artifact” in Our Work
“Artifact,” may not be the best word, because it implies stasis, but let’s go with this for now.
I am interested in the ways we describe ourselves into our own corners.
Something I recently blogged:
It’s not about the presence of the ethnic artifact in our work. It’s never been about the presence of the ethnic artifact in our work. It’s always been about what we are doing with the ethnic artifact, why and how we are doing what we are doing with the ethnic artifact.
What is the ethnic artifact in our work—not just objects (the Balul, the barrel man, and hanging on the wall of your parents’ home, above the Santo Niño on the altar, the gigantic narra wood spoon and fork, the gigantic narra wood tinikling dancers), but also language, food, customs, rituals.
Are you writing a grandmother/Lola poem because you feel like you have to? Why do you feel like you have to? What are you writing about your grandmother? How? Why? And are you handling her voice and narratives properly? Are you doing her voice and narratives justice? Are you exploring the complex layers of her voice and narratives, are you moving towards some insights you hadn’t previously considered, about her as a woman, a mother, a wife, her attitudes, her awareness, her agency? Her ambivalences? Her faith, her sadness, her will? Her humanity? Her testimony?
Is she telling the “truth”? Is she “lying”? Is she “omitting”? What and why?
And as you are engaged in this hard work, are you minding the borders of sentimentality? How close are you? Or are you rehashing everyone else’s Lola story, not digging deep enough, or are you going full maudlin, effectively turning her into a stereotype? Or are you sticking to the expected abstracts, Lolas as martyr, Lola as survivor (Of what? How? What are some ethical and moral questions we can employ here, as we discuss her agency?), Lola as symbol of strength, Lola as embodiment of tradition, Lola as symbol of generosity, love for Lola as expression of cultural pride?
You are not doing your Lola justice by resorting to the sentimental, generic, the hackneyed, overused trope. Your writing is objectifying your Lola.
So then, it has to do with the kind of hard work we are willing and able to do as writers, crafting narratives that flesh out the humanity of a character or persona in all its awesome contradiction and intricacy, versus churning out a fast, cheap, and easy McStory or McPoem … as a way of placating our constituents. The hard work is in the language—precision, specificity, and it is in how deep you dig into your own imagination (yes, imagine that, using our imagination), how much you can challenge and push your own imagination, as you listen to her tell her own story, or challenge and push your own memory. What other hard questions are we asking ourselves to push these narratives further, into something well considered, carefully crafted, original, interesting, specific?
What is at stake? What are the larger implications of the narrative?
So then, this is not a strict “prompt,” but rather, some lines of questioning I hope are helpful in unraveling the “ethnic” space we occupy, in many cases, with ambivalence. By all means, write about your families. Write your family histories. Write your family recipes. But be mindful of your lenses. Home in, scale back, position yourself at different angles. How are you looking?
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Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry and a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008) Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).
An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow, she received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University. She is an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, where she teaches Filipino/a Literature in Diaspora, and Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature. She has also taught Filipino American Literature at San Francisco State University, and graduate poetry workshop at Mills College, and currently serves on the board of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA). She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland, where she is co-editor of Doveglion Press.
Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books), selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from the Kresge Arts Foundation, The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, he teaches at Warren Wilson College and is the poetry editor of The Collagist.
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LR: Some of the most pervasive themes that Mezzanines deals with are place, identity, and faith, all in the context of mortality. Can you talk about the relationship between mortality and some of the specific places, identities, and beliefs you grapple with in the book?
MO: I’ve heard it said that most of literature, in some way, grapples with only one question: what does it mean to be alive? I’m probably not capable of answering that question, but if the idea of mortality hangs over a lot of these poems, it’s because I often get stuck thinking in binary terms; I get at things by considering their opposites. What does it mean to be alive? Not a clue. What does it mean to not be alive? Now I’m sufficiently terrified. What I’m saying is I tend to be the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side. I know Eden is paradise only when I’m banging against the gate from the wrong side.
LR: Mezzanines is full of unlikely juxtapositions and contradictions; for example, the interplay between high literature and the intensely personal and emotional in “The Tiny Men in the Horse’s Mouth” or the pairing of sci-fi pop culture with a meditation on racial identity in “Spock as a Metaphor for the Construction of Race During My Childhood.” What are your thoughts on contradiction and juxtaposition as poetic strategies? As the aforementioned poems appear side by side in the book, can you explain how they relate to one another?
MO: I’m interested in making connections between various points, in metaphor as a device that makes something abstract more tangible. As such, I’m constantly looking at things that might not overtly belong together, and I’m trying to find correspondences among those dissimilarities.
In trying to organize the book, I initially arranged the poems a little bit more thematically: here are the love poems, the poems about identity, the poems about weird stories from the news, etc. However, those thematic clusters quickly began to feel artificial and predetermined. So I deliberately broke them up and tried to spread them out over the book, hoping those threads that were related in terms of “content” would echo and speak to each other across the length of the book rather that exist back-to-back as next-door neighbors. I began thinking of the order “tonally,” and those two poems—while apparently dissimilar in terms of subject matter—felt similar in terms of tone and perspective, both in their movement from humor to emotional crisis, and from an outward gaze to internal reflection.
Curated Prompt: Aimee Nezhukumatathil – “The World is Full of Paper: Writing Epistolary Poems (Epistles)”
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
by Agha Shahid Ali
The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.
The hand-lettered envelope. The canceled stamp. The tooth of the paper that nibbles the ink. The epistle is a type of poem that underscores the best intimacies that can arise from a letter: the measured and focused address to a specific recipient. In a world that values the addictive glow of a screen, the speedy text message, the quick hello and check-in—much can be gained and admired in a poem that follows the ancient and simple form of a letter.
The word epistle comes from the Latin word (espistula) for letter. In the Middle Ages, the art of letter writing was often taught as a necessity for building community and encouraging discourse. In fact, the writing of epistles was actually amplified as old road structures began to decay and crumble. Travel became increasingly difficult—people soon relied on letter writing to conduct and negotiate business in place of making a claim in person. Another variation of the epistle is one that Ovid himself employed—epistles as a way to explore persona. In his Heroides, he imagines letters written by neglected or abandoned heroines of Greek mythology: writing as Penelope to Odysseus, writing as Helen to Paris, as Medea to Jason.
When is the last time you opened your mailbox and found a bona fide hand-written letter? So much of mail these days is ‘sad mail’—coupon flyers, missing children notices, bills, sweepstakes packets. But oh the joy and delight when you find your name written by a friend or loved one’s hand! Or the surprise and mysterious architecture of a handwriting you’ve never seen before! When was the last time you wrote a letter?
Feel free to mimic the relationship uncovered within most epistles—the letter poem is addressed to someone ‘you’ can’t talk to for whatever reason—the person is far away or deceased or famous, or even someone you know well, but you can’t say what needs to be said in real life. It should be clear to the reader who is being addressed within the title or the first few lines. There are no meter or rhyme rules for this form. This type of poem is more of a vehicle to explore persona and voice.
Still stuck? Write an epistle to any of the following: 1) an animal or plant, 2) yourself, ten years ago, 3) yourself, twenty years ago 4) your beloved, twenty years ago, 5) a future version of you, even if the future you imagine is simply ‘tomorrow’ 6) a company or corporation 7) one of the seven deadly sins or virtues (ie. Dear Lust,… or Dear Patience,…) 8) your zodiac or birthstone 9) your favorite “guilty pleasure” food or 10) the city you call ‘home’ in all its complicated and wondrous glory.
I’ve found that writing a poem TO someone (or some-thing!) makes the edges of imagery focus crisper into view. And in that focused state, the epistle begins to tighten up the rest of the poem’s language so that a distinct persona emerges and establishes a clear and immediate tone and mood in ways that other poems might not. And yet, writing a letter to a stranger takes the innate intimacy of an epistle a step further: it requires the invention of an imagined other (even if the person exists, he/she is still being imagined), and it fashions a sort of detailed handiwork about why we might find ourselves wishing to talk to them. And isn’t that such a good and necessary occupation, a welcome slowing down and stepping away from a handheld device or screen? I like to think of writing epistles as a writing towards—and attempting to love, or at least recognize—the strangers that live inside each of us.
For More Inspiration:
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Aimee Nezhukumatathil is professor of English at State University of New York–Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature. She is the author of three poetry collections: Lucky Fish (2011), winner of the gold medal in poetry from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize for Independent Books; At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize; and Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the Global Filipino Award. Poems and essays are widely published in venues such as Tin House, Ploughshares, Orion, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and noted in Best American Essays. Other honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Western New York in the middle of berry country with her husband and young sons.
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Oliver de la Paz.
When you’re a parent of three children under the age of 6, you have to be very deliberate in finding time for yourself to commit to the page. My family lives in the country, and it’s a 40-minute commute from my house to the doorstep of my workplace. In addition, all my children are in daycare. You’d think that having the kids in daycare would afford me some time, but it doesn’t. When they’re in daycare, I’m either teaching, thinking about teaching, preparing to teach, or administrating on some committee that has to do with teaching. Needless to say, my writing time comes in pockets. Slivers. Little flares. My relationship with the page is no longer routinized. I used to have ample time to dedicate to writing, but that was before children. Now my writing time is broken down into excursions. Mini-trips. Little rendezvous. I understand that this is my life and rather than succumb to long silences, I challenge myself everyday, to think about a poem. In order to cope with my hectic schedule, I developed a process that fosters obsession.
An obsession is not a terrible thing to have when you’re a writer. It can be a motivator—generative beacon. I try to dedicate increments of five to ten minutes throughout the day to the composition of a line. I also attempt to write a line every hour for fourteen hours, so by the end of the day I have a sonnet-length collection of lines. My poem “Requiem for the Orchard” was composed under these particular conditions. During the hectic weeks of Christmas vacation (who’d have thought Christmas vacation would be hectic?) I had a sense that I needed to craft a “spinal” poem for a collection of poems I had nearly completed.
During the Kundiman Retreat in 2007, I assigned the Kundiman Fellow cohort the following assignment. I give it to you now:
1) Write a single line every hour. Write no more than a line. Even if you feel you wish to write a second line, restrain yourself from doing so.
2) Set an alarm to go off every hour.
3) At the top of every hour, write a new line, adding to the collection of lines you have written throughout the day.
4) Do this for fourteen hours.
Here’s what happens, at least to me, when you set up these particular circumstances—you wind up thinking about the poem all day. Sure, you’ve spaced out the time you get to the page, but in the interstices of an hour, a poem begins to take shape from its first line to its next line to the line that follows. Of course, you’re going to want to be sure that you are in a safe locale for this. One Kundiman fellow was driving when the fellow’s writing alarm went off and she nearly sideswiped a car. Don’t do that.
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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and Post Subject: A Fable, forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in 2014. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems and the co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Western Washington University.
“What is the Landscape of APIA Literature?” reads the poster board map of the United States that I’ve stuck up on my bedroom wall. Red, green, and blue dots cluster over the black sharpie outlines of its borders, clotting layer upon layer in some locations (e.g. NYC, LA, SF, New England), and scattering more sparsely across others (there’s two lonely blue dots huddled together in the southeastern-most corner of South Dakota; while several states—such as Alaska, Idaho, Oklahoma, and New Mexico—remain blank). A key in the right hand corner provides some interpretation: green dots stand for people who identify as writers and readers (and/or publishers) of Asian/Pacific Islander American (APIA) literature, red for those who identify as readers (but not writers) of APIA lit, and blue for those who identify as neither a reader nor a writer of APIA lit, but are curious to learn more.
The information on this map was “crowd-sourced” a few months ago at our the AWP bookfair table, where we and three other APIA lit mags (Kartika Review, TAYO Magazine, and Hyphen) invited passers-by to add dots representing themselves to the map according to the place of origin with which they most identified and their relationship to APIA literature. One of the things that struck us immediately was how very open people were to our invitation to “map” themselves. The act of adding oneself to a map carries its own particular appeal. To place yourself on a map is to make a statement about one’s identity; to declare one’s origins; to make one’s mark on a place; to speak for and represent oneself amidst a larger community. In the context of a conference as bewilderingly large and far-flung as AWP, especially, that seemed particularly important.
Thank you so much to all of you who entered our 2013 National Poetry Month giveaway! This weekend, we put the total number of entries (comments) received through a random number generator, and let it choose the number of the winning comment for us:
And the winner is . . .
Here’s a screenshot of his comment:
Noel will receive a 1-year subscription to the Asian American Literary Review (courtesy of AALR), a copy of Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s Magnetic Refrain (courtesy of Kaya Press), and a copy of Henry W. Leung’s Paradise Hunger (courtesy of the author). Congratulations, Noel! We hope you’ll enjoy your prize!
Also as promised, each of the first ten commentors to have entered the contest will receive a bundle of five of our poetry starter packs. These lucky ten people are, in the order in which their comments were received:
- Rumit Pancholi, who’s reading Li-Young Lee and Garrett Hongo.
- Cathy Linh Che, who adores Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors.
- R., who has Myung Mi Kim and Barbara Jane Reyes on the top of their list.
- Roberto Ascalon, who’s reading Jon Pineda and looking forward to Jason Bayani’s Amulet.
- Michelle Penaloza, who recommends both Eugene Gloria and Luisa Igloria.
- Luisa Igloria, who wrote of her love for Paisley Rekdal’s work.
- Michelle Lin, who’s enjoying Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior at the moment.
- Rachelle, who’s reading Brynn Saito and Jason Bayani, and is waiting for Manila Noir (ed. Jessica Hagedorn)
- Jane Wong, who recently finished (and loved) Lynn Xu’s Debts and Lessons and also recommends the work of Cathy Park Hong (having recently read Engine Empire) and Myung Mi Kim.
- Kristen Eliason, who says she visits and revisits For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang, and Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil.
We were thrilled to see everyone’s responses. There was a wide range of names mentioned in the thirty-four comments that were left on the original post; Ching-In Chen, Kimiko Hahn, and Li-Young Lee topped the list at 4, 3, and 3 mentions each, while a number of other poets (Jason Bayani, Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Myung Mi Kim, Karen Llagas, Barbara Jane Reyes, Ocean Vuong, Lynn Xu, and Andre Yang) were mentioned twice. Other writers who showed up on people’s lists included: Arthur Sze, Karen An-Hwei Lee, Dilruba Ahmed, Angie Chuang, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Kenji Liu, David Maduli, Pos L. Moua, Soul Choj Vang, Ka Vang, Sesshu Foster, Angela Torres, Matthew Olzmann, Koon Woon, Allen Qing Yuan, Beau Sia, Amy Uyematsu, Russell Leong, Mitsuye Yamada, Joel Tan, Tsering Wangmo, Lee Herrick, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, David S. Cho, Bao Phi, Ed Bok Lee, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Sasha Pimental Chacon, Burlee Vang, Ishle Yi Park, Sally Wen Mao, Lo Kwa Mei-En, and Hoa Nguyen. (To read about these recommendations in more detail, click here to see the original post). Many commentors also took the time to leave detailed remarks about the work of the poets they’d mentioned. Their recommendations have definitely nudged us to add several names and titles to our reading lists, and we hope they’ve inspired you, too!
Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you so much again to everyone who entered, as well as to our generous sponsors, AALR, Kaya, and Henry Leung. A very happy tail end of National Poetry Month to you all! We’ll see you on the flip side, in May, when we’ll continue our celebration of Asian American poetry with more special content for APIA Heritage Month.
Chris Santiago is a poet, fiction writer, critic, and teacher. His writing has appeared in FIELD, Pleiades, The Asian American Literary Review, Canteen, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and elsewhere. He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and has been a finalist for both the Stony Brook Short Fiction Contest and the Kundiman Poetry Prize (for his manuscript Tula). Chris is completing his Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where he is a Provost’s Ph.D. Fellow and ACE-Nikaido Fellow, and teaches literature & writing in the Thematic Option Program.
This April, we are returning to our Process Profiles series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their writing process for an individual poem or poetic sequence of theirs. As in the past, we’ve asked Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a piece of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Christopher Santiago writes about his poem “Tam,” which appeared in Issue 5.
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I wrote the first draft of “Tam,” I think, out of anger. It’s an older poem, and I was in my early twenties and mad about a lot of things, but one of the things that really got under my skin was pop culture, and portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in particular. Miss Saigon, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s Vietnam War redux of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, was the kind of cultural object that really drove me up the wall. The tale of Kim, a Vietnamese bargirl who commits suicide so that her son, Tam, can grow up in the States with his American ex-GI father, didn’t bother me when I first saw it as a teenager. But over the years, the memory festered—I won’t waste time explaining why—and only after I began to try to write seriously did it occur to me that this anger might be something I could use.
I was just starting out, and writing a lot of persona poems, partly because I felt that trying to get in someone else’s head allowed me to get outside of myself, and partly because I was (and still am) deeply interested in voice. My anger toward Miss Saigon—and texts that were like it—gave me energy, but it also made me inarticulate. As the poem unfolded, then, I felt the impulse to deflect, to approach the subject obliquely—from the point of view of Tam, who I imagined growing up haunted by the memory of his mother’s voice. That way, I reasoned, I could really poke holes in the musical’s phony premise, its false catharsis. I could build further into its world in a way that would, I hoped, reveal its glib and hollow heart.
After I wrote a few drafts, the poem sat on the back burner for years, until I started working a couple of years ago on a manuscript I’m tentatively calling Tula. I was happy to find “Tam” on an old hard drive, and happier still to find that one of my current obsessions had begun to take shape in “Tam” years before: my obsession with the way that unlearned languages haunt us. I never learned to speak Tagalog, or Ilonggo, or Bicolano—my mother tongues, or heritage languages—and I’m fascinated by the bits and pieces that I do know, the bodily traces of certain rhythms and intonations in the ears of 1.5 and 2nd generation folks like me. I’ve been reading these fascinating fMRI studies on the subject: the science, as far as I can tell, supports the intuition that Kim—her singular way of speaking—remains a part of Tam even after he can no longer recall (at least consciously) a single phrase of Vietnamese.
As for the poem, I still liked its bones, but thought perhaps it over-explained itself. I decided to strip it back, to let the silences bleed more, and to break the suite of episodes into shorter and more irregular fragments. I also hoped that reordering them might quiet some of the melodrama. I’d given Tam my anger, and think he deserved to feel it; some of it, I think, still bubbles up under the lid. But instead of belting his anger out under the spotlights, Tam mutters it under his breath. I hope that gives the poem at least a bit more bite and plaintiveness.
Water Chasing Water by Koon Woon | Kaya Press 2013 | $14.95
In Koon Woon’s Water Chasing Water, a river appears in one poem and flows into the next, appearing there as rain, turning up in one place as an ocean and in yet another as a damp and soggy sadness. I was immediately reminded of lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and there on thúy’s first page: “Ba and I were connected to the four uncles, not by blood but by water” (3).
Woon’s text gestures toward the meanings of water—as life-giving force, as connective tissue, as that which carries us. lê thi diem thúy explains that “In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu’ó’c.” In Thai, the word for river (แม่น้ำ) is made up of the word for mother (แม่) and the word for water (น้ำ). For the diasporic fish/ghost/dish-washer in Woon’s poems, water connects places to other places, traveling from person to person and washing up memories and other debris.
As if glazed in the afternoon heat,
the blackberry brambles are still and
quiet, the steel rail expanding,
and once the roar of a rumbling freight
passes and dies, the slough,
quiet again with its currents,
becomes water moving on
in my unregulated childhood.
[. . .]
In the waters between us are
the gurgling sounds of childhood empires
and paper boats, and in the parcels of land
that sustain us, the memories of stickers
and hand-staining berries;
in nights of sleep,
a child’s reworking of paradise. (“As If,” 5)