Editors’ Picks: “My Issei Parents… Now I Hear Them”

I was browsing the American Literary History Journal the other day and came across Corinne E. Blackmer’s “Writing Poetry like a ‘Woman’.”   In it, I found this observation on the subject of writing by incarcerated Japanese American women during World War II:

The experience of these [internment] camps radically affected the writing of issei and nisei women poets.  Before the war, issei values of feminine propriety confined women to the household and prohibited public discourse; the experience of the camps, however, blurred men and women into a shared common world. (134)

Though Blackmer makes an interesting claim about the impact of changed spatial and social relations on “the writing of issei and nisei women poets,” I was most intrigued by the mere existence of the term “issei and nisei women poets.”  I was struck for two reasons.  First, I realized that I know virtually nothing of “issei and nisei women poets,”  nor of the writing they did before or after the war.  Second, to see the phrase “the writing of issei and nisei women poets” in print, in an academic literary journal, was shocking.  I had never thought of “the issei poet,” or “the nisei poet” as real figures in the history of American literature though I had certainly wondered what they might say.  It goes without saying that this realization has prompted me to search out some of these key figures.

Mitsuye Yamada, who wrote the book Camp Notes and Other Poems (Shameless Hussy Press, 1976),* during and shortly after the internment, is one of the poets mentioned in Blackmer’s article, whose voice comes to the reader with great force and a radical vision.  In the poem “Neutralize” she writes:

white floors walls ceiling white
white chairs tables sink white
only when I close my eyes do I see
beyond the white windowless walls

The poem, which opens with an epigraph stating “poetry… / has been my spiritual guide / throughout my incarceration,” details the speaker’s resistance to an outside “They’s” attempt to “kill / the sentient being in me,” that is, the seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing self.  Her strong and forceful diction, repetition of the word “white,” and conflation of objects, surfaces, and imagined/actual realities makes for a compelling first encounter with a group of writers with whom I am only just becoming acquainted.

One of Yamada’s earlier poems from Camp Notes, which I also found compelling, constructs an issei voice through the use of fragmented, non-standard English free verse.  I found this gratifying because this mode validates some of my own experiments with Japanese American “dialect” or “accented” writing.  An excerpt from “Marriage Was a Foreign Country”:

When we land the boat full
of new brides
lean over railing
with wrinkled glossy pictures
they hold inside hand
like this
so excited
down there a dock full of men
they do same thing
hold pictures
look up and down
like this
they find faces to
match pictures.

In this poem, the speaker’s gaze is turned forward toward a future in America, a country as foreign to the new bride as that of marriage (as indicated by the title).  The speaker, freshly delivered to an alien shore and tinged by her departure from Japan, brings with her the language of a person newly acquiring a foreign tongue.  Returning to this voice, or listening to the traces of it embdedded still in the Japanese American community, is a curious reversal of history and generational assimilation, and therefore one I find tremendously interesting.

I appreciate Yamada’s poem because it does for me something that I am unable to do for myself: imagine what a voice shrouded by time and, to a certain extent, cultural taboo (as many Japanese Americans have, through the generations after WWII, worked to shed their accents and mother tongue), might sound like.  Because much of Japanese America’s history has been an effort to make the assertion that “I am an American” (as seen in the Dorothea Lange photograph below), to evoke a “non-American,” or non-standard English voice is a risky move.  As always, more to come…

Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of The Bancroft Library. "Following evacuation orders, this store, at 13th and Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner... placed the I AM AN AMERICAN sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor."


* Now available as Camp Notes and Other Writings (Rutgers University Press, 1998)

Editors’ Picks: Reflections on (Re)Fashioning Japonisme

Recently I’ve become interested in nineteenth century japonisme, a strain of “Japan-fever” that Akane  Kawakami, author of Travellers’ Visions: French Literary Encounters With Japan, 1887-2004, describes as a “passing Parisian fad [which] became an important part of the creative imagination of major artists, composers and writers of the period.”  One of these writers, French naval officer Pierre Loti, became widely popular for his novel about a Japanese geisha named Madame Chrysanthemum, whom he arranged to “marry” for a six-month period while stationed in Nagasaki.  In Loti’s fictionalized Japan, Madame Chrysanthemum and her fellow geisha figure as lovely, decorative objects, gaily painted and largely ornamental features of a miniature world filled with dozens of other decorative objects: painted fans, silk screens, teacups and patterned kimono.  Japan is a world of surfaces and puzzling encounters with Japanese women the size of dolls: “yellow-skinned, cat-eyed,” and “no larger than a boot.”  At one point in Madame Chrysanthemum, the narrator remarks that Chrysanthemum is so lovely and “dragonfly”-like, sleeping on her tatami mat, that he would prefer her to always remain in such an attitude of repose—he finds her much more interesting that way.

Initially a bit stunned (and horrified) by Loti’s representations of Madame Chrysanthemum and her counterparts, I began researching the critical conversations that have surrounded this text over the last few decades, and found that opinion is divided between those who condemn the novel for its overt colonial and “sexploitative” agenda, and those who read with a bit more sympathy for Loti’s subtle treaments of japonisme. My stance?  As yet undecided.  I am somewhat unconvinced by arguments in favor of Loti’s veiled sympathies for his Japanese subjects, but remain open to them nonetheless.  At the very least, I find his representations fascinating and, more importantly, telling of the prevailing attitudes held by many in nineteenth-century France while japonisme was all the rage.  The culture’s fascination with “Japan” (or rather, its imagined “Japoniste” equivalent), the aesthetic, and the surfaces of things, bear interesting implications for contemporary Asian American poets (particularly those who, like myself, are invested in revitalizing the “East”-“West” encounter in terms that are more relevant to the current moment, but also informed by the literary histories of the past). Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: Reflections on (Re)Fashioning Japonisme”

Editors’ Picks: Opportunities for Writing in Community

Here at LR, we value community as a space for growth and artistic exploration.  The mentorship that we receive when we work with older writers, and the camaraderie we experience when working with our peers can both be particularly important in encouraging us to push forward with our strengths and in challenging us to reach for new heights in our work.  Writing and creating alongside other members of the Asian American community can also be a incredibly transformative experience: on the individual level, it can help us to wrestle with our personal senses of vision and identity, while on a larger scale, it can help us to mobilize ourselves as a community.   There are many opportunities to participate in community writing workshops that happen throughout the year, but in this post we’d like to focus on three whose deadlines are coming up in the next few months.

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Editor’s Picks: A Voice Crying “STOP” (June Jordan’s “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.”)

June Jordan (Left) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Right)

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought I would briefly discuss June Jordan‘s unusual tribute poem, “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.

“In Memoriam . . .” is not a typical memorial poem.  It begins with a rush of chaotic terror:

“honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born

Jordan’s syntax is like machine gun fire.  Sharp “d” and “t” sounds perforate a matrix of associative fragments that superimpose images of fertility (“honey,” “milkland,” “growing fruit”) with images of destruction (“murder . . . / to kill to violate pull down destroy / the weekly freedom”).  The tumbling momentum of her words propels us violently into the word “America,” which—rather than acting as a barrier against the tide of violence—becomes a springboard that births not liberty, but further atrocities.  Despite the line breaks that set it off, “America” serves sonically and thematically as sprung breath — a launching pad, rather than an arrival.  In stanza two, we are met with with an even longer list of brutalities:
“tomorrow yesterday rip rape

exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed . . .”
Rape, assassination, and fire “fatten up / the raving greed.”  Participating in acts of violence becomes a kind of gluttonous exercise, in which the consumption of brutality turns into a “raving greed” for more.  It is not until we reach the all-caps “STOP” at the end of Section I that the motion of the poem is disrupted.
The violence does abate momentarily at the beginning of part II, lapsing into a quieter contemplative image of sleep and shells, and the speaker’s voice begins to emerge more cleanly in longer, more lyrical and more conventionally “grammatical” stretches of syntax.   But we are simultaneously made aware that the privileges of this sleep are reserved for an unnamed “they” who claim their “regulated place” by means of “some universal / stage direction.”  By contrast, the “we” of the poem is relegated to the mercy of the unstable world of Section I, and even its briefly shared “afternoon of mourning” is “no next predictable.”

Editors’ Picks: The Art of Writing in Dialect

Paul Laurence Dunbar

For the poet of color, whose repository of language is often composed of multiple “englishes” (standard English being only one of them), the dialect poem can become a site of great experimentation–and great conflict.  Best known in the American canon, at least in terms of dialect poetry, are the works of noted African Americans poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar and later, Langston Hughes with his jazz and blues poetry during the Harlem Renaissance.  Dunbar, often considered to be the first African American poet of national eminence, is widely read both for his black vernacular and standard English verse.  The marked differences in syntax, register, tone, and even subject matter that distinguish works like “We Wear the Mask” or “Ships That Pass in the Night” from  “When Malindy Sings” are fascinating to me, particularly because both “voices” are grounded, I think, in Dunbar’s understanding of himself as an English language/African American poet.

Countee Cullen

Equally fascinating to me are figures like Countee Cullen, who, like Hughes, was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, but who (unlike Hughes) vociferously rejected the use of black vernacular in his poetry.  Why?  Because he considered poetry worth reading to be poetry that was carefully metered, rhymed, and executed in the tradition of Keats and Shelley, his two greatest influences.  For a more detailed exploration of Cullen and Hughes’ differing views on questions of racial representation, poetics, and aesthetics, see the comparative essay “Jazz or Junk?” posted on Renaissance Collage. Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: The Art of Writing in Dialect”

Editors’ Picks: Teachers & Writers Collaborative Book Sale!

Teachers & Writers Collaborative book sale!
Teachers & Writers Collaborative book sale!

The Teachers & Writers Collaborative is having a book sale!  If you teach English, writing composition, creative writing, anything… these handbooks are a tremendous resource.

The T&W titles on my shelf are: Poetry Everywhere and The List Poem, though I can vouch for numerous others (Listener in the SnowHandbook of Poetic Forms, etc. ) as well.  I’ve found these books to be useful not only in leading poetry workshops, but in teaching middle school writing composition, and even elementary school grammar!  The prompts are wonderfully versatile, and can be adapted for writers of any age.

Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: Teachers & Writers Collaborative Book Sale!”

Editors’ Picks: Downtown Chicago Poetry Tour Review


Over Thanksgiving weekend, I went into Chicago with a few friends, and decided to use the opportunity to try out the downtown portion of the Poetry Foundation’s Chicago Poetry Tour.  My companions very graciously agreed to take the tour with me—no small feat, considering that it’s a 45-minute walking tour, and a few of them were dragging rolling luggage with them the whole time!  Much to our delight, it ended up being a very pleasant experience for all of us.  In particular, one of our number had never been to Chicago before, so it was a perfect way to show him pieces of the Loop.  But even for those of us who were more familiar with the city, it was wonderful to see the neighborhood around Millennium Park from a different perspective.   The downtown portion of the tour (which is the main tour listed on the web site) takes you almost straight down Michigan Avenue (perfect for us, since our train into the city disembarked at Randolph Station), and then turns west and ends a bit more inland.  It works like this: before going to Chicago, you download the audio file containing the guide, and a map (not necessary, but interesting/helpful if you’re one of those directionally challenged people like me who needs to know exactly where you are in reference to the rest of the neighborhood at every minute) from the Poetry Foundation’s website.  The audio is a single track, and is available in either mp3 or mp4.  You then put the audio file on your portable music device, and turn it on whenever you reach the tour’s start point (The Chicago Cultural Center, at 78 E. Washington).  From there, you follow the audio as it guides you through six different stops of interest (pausing whenever you want to explore a shop, get food, or look at something else along the way— the audio even recommends doing this at several points in the narration), and end up at the Harold Washington Library (400 S. State St), which is conveniently located next to a CTA stop.

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Editors’ Picks: Haibun at Hugo House

Rebecca BrownHugo House

This Wednesday, I was lucky to attend Rebecca Brown’s haibun class at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood  Haibun is an ancient Japanese poetic form that juxtaposes prose narrative and short haiku. Brown’s interest in the form stems from what she calls “the wonderfully uncategorizeable texts” of contemporary American poets who have taken this ancient form and adapted it to their own literary moment.

The event was packed, and I shared a tiny table in the corner with three other women, one of whom is an alumni of the University of Washington’s M.F.A. program.  Years ago, she helped found the program’s literary journal, The Seattle Review, and studied with the faculty member who initiated The Castalia Reading Series, which is also hosted at Hugo House.  Also in attendance was the editor of a local haiku journal, and one of Seattle’s resident specialists in Beat literature, who volunteered himself to read an example of a haibun from Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, a novel written in 1956 while Kerouac was living in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State.  Brown’s samples of haibun ranged from pieces like Desoluation Angels to works by John Ashbery and Basho himself, the poet credited as the originator of the haibun form.

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Editors’ Picks: Voices From Southeast Asia

Voices from Southeast Asia

While browsing the library for new voices in Asian American poetry, I came across the book Voices From Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States (Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1991).  Though the book is not new, it provides historic context for the experiences that have shaped and seeded much of contemporary Southeast Asian American poetry.  The 247-page volume is comprised of a series of oral histories, each of which features the life experience of a Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, or Cambodian refugee to the United States.  Though most of the book is written in prose, there are a few narratives in verse form.  The poem below, for example, was written by a Cambodian woman after her relocation to the Bronx.


They take us and put us in boxes to live.

Each family lives in the same kind of box […]

Our boxes are not all in the same building […]

So we talk on the telephone and imagine

what this person does and

how he lives in his box

and I tell him about life in my box.

This poem, probably one of the earliest instances of Southeast Asian American poetry, captures in simple, unsentimental, and uncomplicated terms the experience of resettlement in the United States by a faceless “they,” a “they” responsible not only for “tak[ing] us” from Cambodia, but “put[ting] us in boxes to live.”  In the speaker’s sense of disconnection, her need to construct an imagined community life, and attempts to communicate across fractured lines, one begins to identify the beginnings of Southeast Asian American poetry.

The accounts in the book are, as US Senator Edward Kennedy puts it, “full of the agony of exile, the disruption of the refugee camps, [and] the challenge of starting over.”  Since 1975, over a million Southeast Asians have settled in the United States, established communities across the country, and begun to shape the voice of contemporary Asian American poetry.  The question for Asian American poets writing today, both those of Southeast Asian descent and other ethnicities, is how to engage the concerns of their history and to move forward.

If, in your own writing, you have struggled to engage historical material (family myth, oral narrative, historical text) in verse, please share your experiences here.  What forms and methods have worked for you?  What dilemmas and/or points of resistance have you encountered?  We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Editors’ Picks: Open Books – A Poem Emporium

A poet’s utopia, Open Books: A Poem Emporium, is a poetry-only bookstore located in Wallingford, Seattle.  Owned and run by husband and wife duo John Marshall and Christine Deavel, Open Books is the only bookstore of its kind on the West Coast (the other is in Cambridge, MA).  The store’s collection caters to a wide range of poetic sensibilities and carries not only recently published works, but a variety of rare and first editions as well.

Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: Open Books – A Poem Emporium”