Curated Prompt: Barbara Jane Reyes – “Minding the ‘Ethnic Artifact'”

Barbara Jane Reyes
Barbara Jane Reyes

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?

* * *

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.

Curated Prompt: Aimee Nezhukumatathil – “The World is Full of Paper: Writing Epistolary Poems (Epistles)”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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 Context

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?

The Exercise

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.

The Why

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:

“Frame, an Epistle,” by Claudia Emerson

“note, passed to superman,” by Lucille Clifton

“Letter to Simic from Boulder,” by Richard Hugo

“As Children Together,” by Carolyn Forché

* * *

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.

Curated Prompt: Oliver de la Paz – “The Fourteen-Hour Sonnet”

Oliver de la Paz
Oliver de la Paz

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.

* * *

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.

Friday Prompt: The Long and the Short of It

A winter sunset (Lexington, KY)
A winter sunset (Lexington, KY).

It’s been a cold winter here in Lexington: week after week of ice storms, snow, freezing rain, and temperatures frequently hovering at or below freezing. When I lived in Indiana, this kind of weather was par for the course, but here in Kentucky, it’s the kind of weather that seems to make everybody (including me) want to retreat deep into bunker mode, to hole up with blankets and space heaters and wait out the long freeze with a big mug of tea and several seasons’ worth of TV shows. So whenever we are granted a momentary reprieve from the ice and frigid wind, all of us, it seems, just have to get out and enjoy the sun. Last Wednesday, in the gap between two back-to-back snow storms, the weather inexplicably skyrocketed to a balmy 70 degrees, so I decided to take advantage of the warmth and walked to the bank during my lunch break. Everything outside seemed blowsy and beautiful, and although I knew that the mild spell would not last for long (another cold front rolled in the very next day), I momentarily had the sense of time lengthening, as if the sun and warmth, now that it had come, would stretch out forever.

In one of my favorite poems of Denise Levertov’s, “Love Song,” the poet writes of the way in which our appreciation of beautiful things is often accompanied by a sense of reverence for their “length”: the way in which their beauty seems far-reaching and robust, so that we are caught in the lingering spell of its echo even after it has faded from immediate view. Writes Levertov:

Your beauty, which I lost sight of once
for a long time, is long,
not symmetrical, and wears
the earth colors that make me see it.

A long beauty, what is that?
A song
that can be sung over and over,
long notes or long bones.

I love how Levertov makes use of a single parameter—in this case, that of scale, or length—to create  an overarching conceit that directs, and indeed elevates, the whole of her poem. Length becomes a centering imagistic motif, a node of almost liturgical repetition, even a sonic intervention in which the consonance of the repeated “o”s in the poem masterfully open up its soundscape so that it gives the impression of  vast boundlessness, belying the deceptively simple syntax. The motif of length stretches the poem out, across time, space, the page, and ultimately, we the readers find ourselves savoring the slow, warm loveliness of its own “long” beauty.

Prompt: write a poem that employs the concept of scale (either “length” or “brevity”) as its primary conceit. Try writing a poem that expresses enormity, extension, boundlessness, or try writing one that attempts to make itself as miniscule or microscopic as possible. Experiment with “scale” in the poem’s form and sonic structure, as well as in its imagery: try using one-word lines, or try extending your lines across multiple pages; write in short, clipped syntax, or stretch the sounds of your words out with long tangles of consonants or round, open vowel sounds.


Friday Prompt: Hybrid & Heterogeneous

LR Issue 5: "The Hybridity Issue" - Call for Submissions
Click to Submit to LR Issue 5 | Deadline: July 15, 2012

Since we’re approaching the end of our Issue 5 reading period, today’s prompt will be our final discussion on the critical notion of hybridity.  Click here for previous posts, which discuss a number of ways we’ve seen contemporary practitioners experiment with hybrid forms, media and language.  Today’s prompt focuses on subject matter derived from hybrid sources, which I’d like to approach through a consideration of Quan Barry‘s poetry.

In an interview for Perihelion, Barry says:

I listen to a lot of NPR, mostly FRESH AIR, and quite a few of the poems [in Asylum] are from segments I’d heard either there or on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Because I’m the kind of person who’s really interested in making connections, in getting really into topics, for ASYLUM, I researched a lot of the poems (for example, the poems about syphilis).

One of these “poems about syphilis,” which appears in the sequence “Plague,” begins:

After three weeks a chancre forms–an ulceration
with a hard edge, springy center–the way a button
feels through a layer of cloth.  Also, the lymph nodes

in the groin begin distorting, swell like vulcanized rubber,
painless though immunologically ineffectual.

Continue reading “Friday Prompt: Hybrid & Heterogeneous”

Friday Prompt: Working With Hybrid Language

LR Issue 5: "The Hybridity Issue" - Call for Submissions
Click to Submit to LR Issue 5

This month, in preparation for Issue 5: “The Hybridity Issue,” we’ve dedicated our Friday Prompts to exploring how collage, mixing and hybridization can be meaningful (and generative) practices for poets interested in exploring the narratives and critical concerns of the Asian American community..  Thus far, we’ve looked at hybrid form and mixed media; today we’ll be talking about hybridized language.

In contemporary poetry, quirky mixtures of the high and low, archaic and contemporary, and the scientific and colloquial are so common that we’re no longer surprised when a writer quotes a religious text–the Bible, for instance–and then, without skipping a beat, relays the one-liner they heard while waiting for an oil change.  This kind of modulation, frequently used for ironic or comedic effect, can also be deployed for more serious purposes–and, I suspect, is a mode we’ve come to embrace because miscegenated language reflects our cultural moment in a way that elegant, seamlessly constructed prose does not.  Just Google “best place to get tacos” or “Jeremy Lin is awesome” and see what comes up.

For many Asian American poets, however, linguistic hybridity is more than just an intellectual exercise.  Many of us are multilingual, or come from families whose histories are told in multiple tongues (two, at least, and sometimes more–I’m thinking here of Korean-Brazilian writer Larissa Min, who writes in the linguistic spaces between Portuguese, English and Korean).  And even if our tongues aren’t split by language, the idea of linguistic difference–our grandparents’ English versus our own, our professors’ English versus our aunties’–is important for more than theoretical reasons.  It’s freighted with cultural, and thus, emotional weight.  Our split tongues matter–even if, as is the case for me, a fourth-generation Japanese American, our “mother tongue” is little more than a myth, a conspicuous silence that, in its marked absence, tells us something about our history. Continue reading “Friday Prompt: Working With Hybrid Language”

Friday Prompt: Mixing Media, Mixing Sources

LR Issue 5: "The Hybridity Issue" - Call for Submissions
Click to Submit to LR Issue 5

Today’s prompt is more of a loose, outline sketch than a focused discussion. We’re still continuing our exploration of different modes of “hybridity,” but in thinking of examples of pieces that mix media and “collage” voices from outside sources together, I found that it was difficult to choose just one or two poems that felt truly representative. There is so much being done in terms of mixed media today, and so many, many different ways that people have found to do it.

Hence, the following list of resources loosely illustrates a few examples of the two particular modes of hybridity I’m focusing on today: 1) hybrid means of presenting poetry to the viewer (in which the artist employs media outside the realm of the traditional printed page, or combines two or more different media as the means by which to enact their finished piece), and 2) the use of multiple sources (texts, images, video clips, sounds, etc.) to create a hybrid, “collaged” effect (in which the artist may “borrow” text from multiple different sources and mix it with his/her own speaker’s voice).  In many cases, the examples I’ve listed do both.

 * * *

1. Monica Ong’s visual poem from LR issue 3,  “Corona Mestiza,” which overlays text upon the found images of a map and a brain scan in order to convey a family narrative of physical and geographical loss. (See Monica’s web site for more examples of her work, which often combines archival and original images with text, physical objects, sound, and reader/audience interaction).

2. Visual Poems by Gregory and Trisha Orr (from Rattle #29): the poet and his wife, a painter, collaborated on these pieces, combining text with color and visually-textured hand-lettering to form striking works of visual art. The rest of the issue is also full of interesting visual poems that can be used for inspiration.

3. Margaret Rhee’s “Materials” from LR Issue 4, which makes use of scrolling, vertical columns and strategic typography, and combines text and voices from multiple sources.

4. Charles Hobson’s beautifully composed and choreographed video accounting of the making of his artist’s book for Eavan Boland’s poem “Quarantine” (from Drunken Boat 15). The video is as much part of the mode of his art as the book and the borrowed text itself.  As with the Rattle issue mentioned above, the rest of the “Handmade/Homemade” folio that features Hobson’s film is worth exploring, too.  A tip for submitting to LR: if you are planning on sending in work that uses the full text of another person’s poem, please be sure to obtain their explicit permission before doing so (otherwise, we cannot publish your piece, even if it is accepted).

5. Mouseover translations on Action Yes: admittedly, this is more of a brilliant editorial intervention than anything else, but it so perfectly illustrates the possibilities for mixed media made available by the web that I couldn’t not include it. Here’s one great example: “from strips, attempts, games,” by Rémi Froger, translated by François Luong (mouse over the English to reveal the original French).

6. The work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, best known for her book Dictee, whose written and performed art sought to problematized the acts of speaking and writing in English (the loss of a heart language, the simultaneous stifling of a history by mainstream narratives) through explorations that made use of anatomical diagrams, archival photographs, poem-text (both self-generated and “borrowed” from sources like French dictation exercises), textiles, musical instruments, video footage, the performances of physical acts of creation and erasure, and more.  Extensive digital documentation of her work is no longer readily available online, but this New York Times tribute describes several of her important pieces quite well.

* * *

Why mixed media? Why collage? Because the results of both can be absolutely startling. The dimensions of unfamiliarity and innovation that can emerge from the overlaying of the poem with non-print media, digital platforms, unique performative experiences, or text that comes from outside the characteristic syntax or lived experiences of the poet him or herself, can cause the reader to look again, to examine the text from a different perspective, and to encounter the poem in new and refreshingly counter intuitive ways.

Prompt: Create a poem or poetic work that presents itself to the reader through a mixture of two or more different types of media, and/or which collages together materials gathered from multiple different sources (texts, images, poems, sound clips, found objects, etc.).

 * * *

The submissions period for Issue 5, “The Hybridity Issue,” will close on July 15th. Has this prompt inspired you to experiment with mixed media poetics, or do you have other previously unpublished work that explores the concept of “hybridity”?  Click here to submit.

Friday Prompt: Hybrid Forms

LR Issue 5: "The Hybridity Issue" - Call for Submissions
Click to Submit to LR Issue 5

Now that the reading period for our first themed issue is open, we thought that our return to regular Friday Prompts would be a great opportunity to provide you with some  inspiration.  To that end, we’ll be setting aside this month’s prompts to illustrate just a few of the many approaches with which we believe the theme of “hybridity” could be interpreted.

This week, our focus is on form. Although there are many ways in which the formal structure of a poem could cause it to be classified as “hybrid,”  for today’s prompt, we’ve chosen to highlight two poems that make use of hybrid forms very differently: Kimiko Hahn’s villanelle “The Fever” (from The New Yorker), which mixes elements of free-verse with the constraints of a traditional formal structure, and Ching-In Chen’s poem “Fob” (from Tea Party), which blurs distinctions between “forms” from different genres by shaping itself around the structure and syntax of a dictionary definition.

In re-envisioning the villanelle, Hahn holds rhyme and meter loosely. Her use of slant rhymes (e.g. “color” / “fever”) and strategically varied refrains, and her light adherence to iambic meter allow her to engage the “rules” loosely enough that her language flits conversationally from line to line (clusters of Latinate words—themselves borrowed from the science section of the New York Times—as in, “damages the membrane of symbiotic algae,” help to make the stresses sufficiently “bumpy” so as to feel uncontrived), but she still holds onto enough of the form that as the poem rolls along, it stays—like a marble rattling through a chute—recognizably within the scaffold of a villanelle. The lyrical lilt that the form lends to the poem allows it to take on a twinge of ironic whimsy (given the gravitas of its overarching metaphor), while still retaining the appealingly confessional tone that is more frequently associated with free verse. As a result, the voice of the speaker comes across as sympathetically quirky, bemused, worldly—and we wholly buy the “leap” the poem takes when, by its end, we find that the speaker’s musings on coral reefs are merely a conceit by which to critique her own practices of self-ornamentation (“the ocean’s escalating fever” becomes “my ocean’s escalating fever”).

Ching-In Chen’s “Fob,” meanwhile, engages in a different kind of formal experimentation: it “borrows” the structure of a type of writing that falls entirely outside the genre of poetry. In appropriating the definition as a poetic form, Chen makes strategic use of the didactic—even alienating—editorial qualities that we associate with the dictionary’s language in order to frame and enact her ensuing critique of the relationship between structural and linguistic hegemonies.  Her “example sentences,” which extend the reader’s gaze beyond the bars of the “definition” text to offer startlingly intimate glimpses into an alternate, more evocatively “definitional” narrative, subvert the bland, instructional tone of the dictionary’s text, thus “fobbing” our expectations of the poem’s own conceit. Through her lyric interventions, Chen allows us to witnesses the complicity of teacher and dictionary—by their silence on the pejorative meaning of “fob”—in the racial bullying that the speaker experiences, and gives us access to her subsequent, delicious revenge, in which she tricks one of the bullies into thinking that, among other things, the Chinese word for “ugly” is actually the word for “pretty,” and that the term “ku-li” (coolie) is a flattering and desirable nickname.  In re-appropriating the dictionary’s syntactical patterns as a “form,” then, Chen successfully manages to turn the cultural and linguistic authority it represents against itself.

To read both poems in their entirety, click below:

“The Fever” by Kimiko Hahn
“Fob” by Ching-In Chen 

Prompt: write a poem that makes use of hybrid form, either by blending a traditional form with new and unusual elements from other verse traditions, or by appropriating the “formal” conventions of another style of writing or genre.

 * * *

The submissions period for Issue 5, “The Hybridity Issue,” will close on July 15th. Has this prompt inspired you to experiment with hybrid forms in your writing, or do you have previously unpublished work that explores the concept of “hybridity”?  Click here to submit.

Curated Prompt: Timothy Yu – “Travesty”

Timothy Yu
Timothy Yu

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Timothy Yu.

travesty, n. A literary composition which aims at exciting laughter by burlesque and ludicrous treatment of a serious work; literary composition of this kind; hence, a grotesque or debased imitation or likeness; a caricature. (OED)

I’m currently writing a sequence of poems called 100 Chinese Silences. The series was inspired, so to speak, by a poem by Billy Collins called “Grave,” which describes the “one hundred kinds of silence” that the Chinese believe in—only to admit that this idea is something the poet “just made up.” This made me mad—those darn quiet Asians!—so I decided to get even. Rather than replying to Collins’s poem, I rewrote it line by line and phrase by phrase.

I’ve decided to call this a travesty, a “ludicrous treatment of a serious work.” It takes a poem that plays on stereotypes and rewrites it from the inside out. It tries to critique without falling into easy anger or mockery.

So here’s your assignment:

Find a poem that really bugs you for some reason. Maybe, like Collins’s, it contains an annoying stereotype about Asians. Maybe it’s sexist or simply smug. Then rewrite it, line by line, preserving when possible the form of the original—the same number of lines, the same kinds of phrases, even the rhyme scheme if there is one—while filling it with content that reflects on, critiques, or undermines the original. The result should be a poem that could have been written by the original author but is “off” in some way. Don’t be afraid to be silly, but do strive to echo the tone of the original. Hopefully you’ll end up with something that can speak back to the original in its own voice.

Timothy Yu is the author of two chapbooks: 15 Chinese Silences, from Tinfish Press, and Journey to the West, winner of the Vincent Chin Memorial Chapbook Prize from Kundiman. He is also the author of a scholarly book, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford University Press). He is an associate professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Curated Prompt: Rick Barot – “The Hermit Crab Poem”

Rick Barot

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Rick Barot.

Once, I mentored a graduate student who had been obsessively reading the stories of survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings in World War II.  These stories were horrifying and moving by turns, and my student was consumed by them.  Because she was a poet, it was inevitable that her engagement with the stories would manifest itself in her work.  But here was the problem: she was a comfortably situated Caucasian woman who didn’t feel she had the right to write about this subject matter.  Even more complicated: she wanted to write poems directly in the voices of these survivors, making her use of the material doubly problematic.  Part of me, of course, wanted to advise the student to step away from the project, because it was simply too fraught with pitfalls that would make the project insurmountable at worst, and awful at the least.  But a larger part of me wanted to advise the student to move forward, which is what I did.

We artists get on a tightrope when we tackle subjects that are beyond the merely personal.  But far from ever trying to dissuade anyone from writing about these subjects, I urge them to head straight into those subjects.  The risks that come with any writing project are in fact the opportunities of that project: they are what make the project worth doing in the first place.  In poetry, there is no such thing as hands-off material.  A poem never fails because of its subject matter—it fails because the poet has inadequately given depth and shape to that subject matter.  Dramatic historical periods, natural disasters, grand personal wounds—writing about these subjects raises the stakes tremendously high when you have to write about them inventively, feelingly, thoughtfully.  You have to be ingenious to avoid failure—or, at the least, ingenuity will allow you to fail well.

Continue reading “Curated Prompt: Rick Barot – “The Hermit Crab Poem””