Asian Pacific American Heritage Month may be nearing its close, but as we all know, the challenge of representing APA voices on the page is one that continues year round. Lumen No. 3 (the third installment of our email newsletter) is about to drop into inboxes tomorrow, and we’re excited to announce that it will be the first of two newsletters focused on the topic of Asian American literature—not for adults, but for kids! These days, there is so much exciting, diverse work that is being published in the world of children’s books, and the titles that we’ll be talking about are stories that we have loved sharing with the youngsters in our lives and that we wish we had had as kids.
Why, you might ask, do we feel so strongly about this topic—though children are not LR ‘s primary audience? Here’s how Iris explains it in Lumen 3:
“Kids need books that will challenge them to see worlds outside of their own—but they also need books that offer them mirrors in which they can see themselves. And in the nineties [when I was the same age as my sixth graders], there just weren’t many kids’ or teen books that had characters like me or families like mine. . . . In short, I wasn’t only bored with the books in the teen section of the library; I just couldn’t relate to them.”
In this quarter’s newsletter, Iris will be putting on her “teacher hat” to discuss middle-grade and YA titles, focusing on three books that she enjoyed getting to share with her sixth-grade ELA students this past school year, and in Lumen No. 4 (to come in a few months’ time), Mia will be meditating on her thoughts as a parent on finding diverse books to share with younger APA readers.
If you’re already a Lumen subscriber, we hope you’ll enjoy sharing the books we talk about in these next two newsletters with the young people in your life. And if you’re not yet subscribed, there’s still time! Click here to sign upso that you won’t miss out when Lumen No. 3 drops tomorrow.
A very happy and healthy Memorial Day to all of you, and cheers to another wonderful APA Month!
Happy Wednesday! We hope you’re staying warm and cozy this frosty January day, especially those of you who are bracing for winter storms out East this week. It’s been a season full of transition for us here at LR, but we’ve really been enjoying leaning into the seasonal rhythm of writing for our new, quarterly email newsletter, Lumen. And today, we’re super excited to announce that the second installment of Lumen will be hitting our subscribers’ inboxes next Monday!
Lumen No. 1 focused on prompts and exercises for renewing one’s writing practice with the turn of the seasons, but Lumen No. 2 will be dedicated to considering the turn of the year—and specifically, the practice of setting intentions for our writing lives this year.
Just what is an intention? Here is a little sneak peek from the newsletter to explain:
“Different from a goal or a resolution, an intention is more about calling a season into being or simply naming it for what it already is. An intention may be about realigning one’s perspective; refocusing one’s attention with renewed intensity; or even aspiring to sustain a rhythm of growth or rest in one’s day-to-day life. Intentions are not meant to have quantifiable end results—rather, they’re are meant to guide and center us throughout a course of time in one’s life.”
LR editors Mia and Iris will be sharing some of their own intentions as they consider where 2017 took their writing lives and where they hope to go in 2018. We hope that those of you who are already subscribed will join us in thinking about how we can each approach our writing practices with greater purpose and grace this year—and if you’re not already a Lumen subscriber, there’s still time to make sure you don’t miss out! Simply click here or on the image at the top of this post to sign up
A very happy, healthy New Year (and Year of the Dog) to you and yours—and may your writing in 2018 be filled with light, joy, and inspiration.
Hello, LR community! It’s great to be back from DC. The Smithsonian APAC’s Asian American Literature Festival two weekends ago was a truly amazing experience, beautifully tying together multiple literary generations, styles, and sub-communities (from spoken word to critical scholarship) in the best way possible. We loved getting to catch up with old friends and had lots of fun meeting new faces in the literary lounge, where we were overwhelmed by your outpouring of support and enthusiasm. Thank you for making us feel so welcome!
As promised, we have some exciting news to share today. As announced at the festival, Lantern Review is getting a newsletter! There have been a lot of changes for us at LR these last few years, and we’ve been searching for a way to bring both more sustainability and more intimacy to what we do. The blog and the magazine are wonderful, but they require a lot of lead time due to the editorial process, and we’re not always able to deliver content to you with the sort of immediacy we’d like. Hence, we’ve created Lumen, a smaller-scale extension of LR that is sent right to your email inbox.
Lumen is not just your standard newsletter. As a subscriber, you’ll get more than just updates; you’ll have access to exclusive content, including writing prompts, meditations on craft and writing practice, teaching ideas, tips on publishing, reading recommendations, and more. We’d like to envision Lumen as a living-room chat between friends, a catch-up over an afternoon cup of tea or coffee. You can think of it as the blog’slittle sister, with the type of content that we have always provided, but with a more intimate format and feel.
So what does this mean for LR? Certainly, neither the blog nor the magazine is going away anytime soon. But the distribution of our editorial energy will be shifting a little. You’ll continue to see news and occasional full-length posts on the blog, but whereas we were very focused on the blog in the past, we now want to pour more of our energies into the magazine itself, so we’ll be concentrating on putting out more of our supplementary content via Lumen in the hopes of building toward a next issue sometime in the near future. Because we’re still experimenting with this new format, Lumen will come out quarterly for now, but if we feel that there is enough momentum to produce more installments, we may decide to increase the frequency of publication.
If you came by our table at the AALF, you should already be subscribed (if you haven’t received a welcome email yet, please check your spam or updates folders, or email us at editors [at] lanternreview [dot] com). And if not, getting linked up with Lumen couldn’t be easier. Simply fill out the form below, and you’ll receive a confirmation email in your inbox. Once you’ve confirmed your subscription, you’re all set! As a little thank-you gift for signing up, you’ll get access to a digital Little Poetry Flight created exclusively for Lumen subscribers, featuring work from Sally Wen Mao, Neil Aitken, and R. A. Villanueva. (Please note that even if you were receiving emails from us before as a contributor, you’ll need to sign up for Lumen directly, as it is an entirely different list).
We’re so very grateful for all of your continued support and are excited to build LR out in new directions through Lumen and more.We hope you’ll come along with us for the ride!
Hello, internet! It’s been a while. But here we are, at last, and with an exciting update for you: this week, we are packing our bags and heading out to Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian’s inaugural Asian American Literature Festival! We’re so excited to get to participate in this historic event, featuring (among other things) readings and mentoring sessions by Kundiman and the release of Poetry’s new Asian American issue (guest edited by past LR contributors Tarfia Faizullah and Timothy Yu). If you live in the DC area or are planning on traveling in for the festival, we hope you’ll come visit us at our table in the literary lounge (see the schedule for exact locations, as the festival’s venue changes each day). In typical LR fashion, we’ll be offering a special interactive experience to everyone who stops by to say hello: for this event, we’re hosting self-guided poetry “microtastings” that we’re calling “Little Poetry Flights.” If you’re familiar with the concept of a wine flight or a cheese flight, you’ll know immediately what we mean by this, but if not, here’s how they work: Little Poetry Flights are small groupings of poems from our archives that we’ve curated by theme and/or context in order to create unique poetry “tasting” experiences. If you stop by our table at the festival, Iris will chat with you and personally recommend a flight that best suits your interests. You’ll then be able to use your mobile device to read the flight of your choice, either on the spot or later on at your leisure.
We’ll also be debuting a bit of big news about the future of LR at the festival. Our official announcement about this won’t appear on the blog until later in August, so especially if you want to be the first to find out about what’s on the horizon for us, please stop by and say “hello”!
We’ve missed our community of readers and are looking forward to connecting with you in person next weekend. We hope we’ll get to see some of you at our table as well as at some of the many fantastic events that the organizers have planned. And if you’re just hearing about this now and live in the DC area, never fear—it’s not too late! The festival is free and open to the public; you can find out more information below:
Are you planning on going to the Smithsonian AALF? If so, what events are you most excited about? Leave a comment to let other LR community members know which readings and other happenings are at the top of your must-see list.
Happy Friday, APA poetry lovers! We have an exciting bit of news to share with you this morning: in exactly a week, we’ll be heading up to San Francisco to be a part of one of the biggest APA arts events in the Bay. This year, Lantern Review is delighted to have the opportunity to copresent the literary arts showcase for Kearny Street Workshop‘s annual APAture festival, featuring poet Jade Cho, author of In the Tongue of Ghosts (First Word Press, 2016).
Now in its fifteenth season, APAture, whose name plays on the photography term “aperture,” takes as its mission the goal of amplifying APA artists and giving them a stage on which to provide focus and context to their work. Fittingly, this year’s theme, “Here,” was chosen to emphasize, among other things, “the importance of APA space and community” (in the organizers’ words), even as the festival itself provides a space for investigation and celebration of the intersection of arts and social justice, innovation and disruption.
For us at LR, as we continue to ease into this new, Bay Area based season of our existence, the word “here” has never felt more relevant. Before our relaunch this past spring, “here” for us quite literally meant nowhere. Mia lived on one coast, while I (Iris) bounced around from the Midwest to the East Coast to the South, and our contributing staff writers lived everywhere in between. We often used to tell people who asked that we were “based on the internet.” But when we restarted LR early this year after a cross-country move that serendipitously brought us together in the Bay Area, “here,” for the first time, became somewhere. And in the months that have followed, the experience of getting to dwell within the space of a real, physical “here” has been wonderful. From getting to host our first physical NPM collaboration in SF, where we witnessed the words and voices of six local APA poets filling up the space of the American Bookbinders Museum; to finally having the ability to sit down face to face with local LR community members for casual meals and creative exchange on a regular basis—the moments of focus provided for us in this last year by receiving from existing local community spaces and building up new ones have been havens; little islands of light dotting the everyday shoals of the necessary things we do in order to keep the lights on. “Here,” for so many years, was whatever we made of it. But at least for this small, precious sliver of current time, having a “here”—a home base, a place in which to let LR dwell and take root—has been invaluable.
Throughout our history at LR, place and awareness of the liminality of “home space” for APA writers has been of utmost concern to us—it’s why we founded LR in the first place. And so, we’re beyond honored to partner with KSW, a storied organization that has been a crucial part of our new “here” and that has worked for years to build and facilitate “home space” for APA arts community in the Bay, to copresent the literary arts showcase at APAture 2016: Here.
A multi-day festival featuring more than sixty up-and-coming Asian Pacific American artists in fields such as comics and illustration, film, literary arts, music, performing arts, and visual arts, APAture will take place from September 30th through October 15th at various locations throughout San Francisco. We encourage you to check out as many of the showcases and performances as you can, but in particular, we hope you’ll come join LR next Friday at the literary showcase, where Oakland-based featured poet Jade Cho will mesmerize with powerful work that explores diaspora, race, gender, ghosts, and the intersections of power and privilege. It will definitely be a can’t-miss event, and we are beyond excited to get to be there, saying a few words about LR and community and hanging out at our little table.
More information about the festival can be found here. Tickets can be purchased here.
Even if you can’t make the festival, we hope you’ll check out the KSW website for more information about its programs and outreach throughout the year, or that you might even consider helping to financially support APAture via its current IndieGoGo campaign. KSW and APAture are vital pillars of the APA arts scene in the Bay Area, and their tireless work has been integral in making the notion of a home space for APA artists in the Bay possible since 1972.
So how about it: Will you come be a part of our “here” by joining us at the APAture literary arts showcase next Friday? We certainly hope that your answer will be “yes”!
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This post was produced in partnership with Kearny Street Workshop. For more information about the APAture festival or about KSW itself, we invite you to check out their website at www.kearnystreet.org. For information about next Friday’s featured performer, Jade Cho, please visit her online at jadecho.tumblr.com.
It may still officially be summertime, but for those of us who balance our writing lives with scholarship and/or teaching, it’s already time to hang up the vacation gear and dust off the books in preparation for a new academic year. Thus far in this summer’s series of reading recommendations, we’ve brought you a couple of short critical reflections that have teased out thematic similarities between some recent collections by #ActualAsianPoets, but this month, in honor of back to school, we’re highlighting a three recent anthology titles (or to be technical, two anthologies and one edited collection of critical prose) that feature #ActualAsianPoets and that we think would be wonderful editions to the classroom this semester.
Weaving together poetry, prose, and visual art, Kuwento, whose title means “story” in Tagalog, explores the notion of myth as told and retold by voices from the Philippine diaspora. Writes coeditor Melissa R. Sipin in a blog post on Kweli, “It is with this book we hope the invocation of the past is somehow answered, somehow quelled, somehow excavated, and thus reborn—reborn in our own terms, in our own myths, in our own kuwentos.” Containing selections by M. Evelina Galang, Oliver de la Paz, Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, Barbara Jane Reyes, Brian Ascalon Roley, Aimee Suzara, Eileen Tabios, Nick Carbó, and others, Kuwento appears to be both thoughtfully curated and expansive in its scope. We’d be eager to see it added to syllabuses for Asian American or Filipino Literature courses and workshops on the undergraduate or graduate levels. As with other groundbreaking anthologies such as How Do I Begin? (the seminal Hmong American anthology that we reviewed a few years ago) or Indivisible(the first anthology of South Asian American poetry, which we reviewed here and here), Kuwento could also likely work well in a community workshop context and perhaps even (in excerpted form) for younger students.
In this slim but mighty volume, Timothy Yu brings together four critical essays by female Asian American literary scholars, each of which focuses on a different pioneering Asian American women poet. Exploring the life and work of Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil, Nests and Strangers draws together thoughts on both the biographies and aesthetic impulses of each poet in order to better understand the import (and impact) of each of their poetry. It would be a wonderful resource for an advanced undergraduate seminar, especially for one focused on feminist poetics or Asian American literature.
Though not specifically an Asian American literature-focused anthology, Family Resemblance encompasses a diverse selection of literary voices, including a number of notable Asian American and Pacific Islander ones (e.g., Kazim Ali, Jenny Boully, Craig Santos Perez). The notion of hybridity is, of course, one that we explored in some depth in our fifth issue, and especially when contextualized with the metaphor of inheritance, as in this anthology, formal hybridity has unmistakable thematic resonances for scholars and students of ethnic studies and postcolonial studies. Personally recommended by our associate editor, Mia, Family Resemblance would fit well into almost any workshop setting (especially one exploring experimental or nontraditional forms) and would also be a wonderful means by which to diversify a syllabus and open doors for deeper consideration of issues of race, class, and gender in the university classroom.
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For those of you who are teachers, what diverse books are you including on your syllabuses this term, and what are some APIA-focused anthologies or critical collections you’ve taught that you’ve found to be especially successful? And if you’re a student, what are your dream APIA lit reading assignments for an inclusive workshop or literature course experience? We’d love to hear from you! Please tell us in the comments or chat with us about it on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
Happy August to all of our readers, and to everyone who’s headed back to school soon, we wish you a smooth transition and a fulfilling academic year!
This month, we were delighted to have had the chance to converse with poet and professor Patrick Rosal about the recent release of his fourth collection, Brooklyn Antediluvian. In our discussion, recorded below, he reflects on the themes and mythologies that shape the book as well as on the publishing process and the influences that music and young people have had on his work. (For yet more on Rosal’s process and inspiration, you can find our previous interview with him here.)
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LANTERN REVIEW: In Brooklyn Antediluvian, water is a central motif. It serves as a force that sweeps the movement of the collection along and is a metaphor for the violent submersion of identity enforced upon the colonial subject under the auspices of imperialism. How did you come to settle upon this motif? Why water, and what was it about the image of destruction by flood that compelled you?
PATRICK ROSAL: First, thanks for reading the book and doing this interview. I feel real lucky to have Lantern Review make space for this new collection.
Growing up in New Jersey, we were always in and around water. And I think we have a special relationship to water as Filipinos in America, having been the descendants of monsoon rains and of people who had to cross miles and miles of water (my grandfather was a sakada, a sugar laborer who sailed from Manila to Hawaii for work). Also, I have real specific memories of water—like my brother almost drowning when he was a toddler or the image of me and my cousins heading out to the Jersey shore mid-week to dive into the waves. And then there were the storms like Katrina and Ondoy and Sandy all in a relatively short period of time, each of which touched me in very personal ways. At some point, probably after I got a sense of the title poem, “Brooklyn Antediluvian,” I realized this book was going to be about waters and floods—which is to say, literal floods from those storms, but also the floods of memory, of roses, of violence, of joy, of names, of gentrification.
LR: The collection draws its name from the final piece in the book, a long poem that commands nearly a third of the text. What appeals to you about the long poem as a form? What was the process of drafting this particular long poem like for you, and what motivated your decision to structure the collection in this way, with the shorter poems up front and the long poem as a finale?
PR: My poems have been getting longer over the course of my four books. In Boneshepherds, I had a poem, “Ars Poetica: After a Dog,” that felt massive, and in a lot of ways it’s a heftier poem than the title poem of Brooklyn Antediluvian, though the more recent poem is a lot longer in terms of pages.
In “Brooklyn Antediluvian” I loved having enough space to make things disappear and then suddenly show up again. I loved getting lost as I was writing because the language kept leading me away from any static subject. And just when chaos might take over, some small connection to a previous image—a rose or horse or name or the boy whom the speaker meets in the first line—would come back. It’s a different kind of lostness from [what you might find in] a short lyric. It’s a study in departure. Also, it gave me a big enough world that many histories and continents—especially in small narrative scales—could exist in the same text. All of this, for me, is a metaphor for seeing and living. I want to see if it’s possible to build a world in language that accommodates epochs and landscapes that seem to have nothing to do with one another. This seems to be the source of a lot of our trouble—parts of our world are so belligerently segregated from one another. What does a Berber pope have to do with a Filipino dietician who died in New Jersey, anyway? A long poem doesn’t just reveal those unusual and often wonderful associations, it finds a music—a pleasing sonic pattern—with which to connect them.
When I first started compiling the poems I wrote after Boneshepherds, I felt a real strong impulse to make a book that could still reach people who don’t consider themselves poetry readers. When I drafted the long title poem, I knew I had something that was going to be challenging even for audiences that consider themselves aficionados of contemporary poetry. I sent the manuscript out to friends, and they made it clear to me that I needed to set up a world of images, places, figures, and rhythms to help prepare the reader for the long poem at the end. Originally, I had the long poem at the front of the manuscript. In the final version of the book, [in which the poem’s at the end], I think readers have a stronger relationship to the ways of looking and singing that the title poem tries to sustain for a longer period of time and on a much bigger scale, with much trickier leaps.
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.
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.]