To this day, I still remember reading Seattle poet Koon Woon’s first official book of poetry, The Truth In Rented Rooms
(Kaya Press, 1998) back in Rochester, NY. As I read more of his writing it was like watching the smudgy white walls of my studio apartment turn into a kaleidoscope of possibilities. I could tell Woon’s writing came from a place of strength and hurt, truthfulness and sorrow. These were human qualities I had taken for granted all my life before I started writing poetry myself.
Woon’s writing had the wonderful ability of convincing me to peer deeper into the well of mystery and to search for my own meaning in life. He writes in the poem “In Water Buffalo Time,”
When my little friends mocked me for my seriousness,
Our teacher, under the shade of the yung tree bursting with berries,
Told us Meng-Tse had dreamed he was a butterfly
Dreaming it was a man.
Without even knowing what a “yung tree” or who “Meng-Tse” was, I intuitively knew that as a poet of Asian descent I was on the threshold of a long literary tradition in this country I called home. I knew I had already missed much, but I soon realized that the curling waves of Asian American literature(s) populate a very large and deep body of experience, innovation and experimentation that only keeps on getting stronger.
The editors of the Lantern Review blog have asked me to review books of poetry, and I intend to employ my trusty reading skills and quirky powers of interpretation to the task of properly introducing poetic works by Asian American authors to You, the general reading audience. The kind of poetry that reels me in and makes me want to take another bite is one where the author simplifies the complex only to open me back up and engage my mind with the never-ending complexity of human experience and imagination.
I’ve found profundity in the sublime descriptions of neighborly commerce by Alan Lau: “The produce market is their own private kitchen and we are the uninvited guests.” (“raw peanuts,” Blues and Greens
I’ve shared in the wounding of home by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs: “I’ve got to go or I’ll suffocate/ in so much space.” (“Letter to Oklahoma (I),” Paper Pavilion
I’ve anticipated the paradox of remembrance by Barbara Tran:
If my mother were telling the story,
you’d hear of the servants,
of my older sister’s
perfect parts and even braids,
my second sister’s
clown and pony parties.
I’ve witnessed the transmutation of a common piece of furniture by Linh Dinh: “Disheveled bed, sentimental sponge, love of my life,/ Witness to all my horrors, my Valdez spills, my crimes,…” (“Letter To My Bed,” All Around What Empties Out)
Finally, I’ve wandered into the cruel ball rooms beautifully constructed by Ai:
…while I get my dog’s chain leash from the closet.
I whirl it around my head.
O daughter, so far, you’ve only had a taste of icing,
are you ready now for some cake?
I’m not going to lie to you: I still feel like a tourist in the literary imaginations and ruminations of Asian America. To understand why I would make such an odd statement you should know that I was born to parents, unknown to me, during a war, whose facts and narratives I am still un/re-covering, and given to a White couple in western New York through the process of adoption. Before my first birthday I had gone through three different names.
For now, I go by Kevin Minh Allen. Without that tell-tale “Minh” inserted in the middle of my two Anglicized names, few people would know that I’m a Person Of Color, a Vietnamese American, an American of Asian descent, as well as a mixed race person who has no definitive proof of the ethnic/racial makeup of his parents. Without the “Minh” readers may mistake me as an imposter or, at the very most, an earnest student of Asian American literature, looking from the outside in. Yet, for most of my life I was raised to be blind to my Asian heritage and to only think of myself as “American”. So, in a sense, those very same readers wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
Ever since I started writing poetry at the age of 18 I’ve been trying to both find and create my own space in this world. Poetry seemed to be the quickest and most profound and least destructive route to take toward that end. Through writing poetry, I reacquainted myself with the Stranger inside of me, who had always been with me, and now demands a voice.
Poetry has rescued this Other Me and given him shelter and nourishment.
In theory, I’m neither Asian nor American, but the political and social context in which I live does not allow me to dabble in such escapism and denial. My physical appearance and circumstances under which I came to be in America have etched distinct marks upon this country’s history.
Asian American poets have chosen the word to not only mark their existence on the monuments of American history, but also tear down the silence of centuries of exploitive labor, mob violence, exclusionary acts and xenophobic discrimination. They have announced their calling and I feel that I am simply here to amplify and fine tune it.