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.

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.

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Curated Prompt: Luisa A. Igloria – “Poetry as Speculum”

Luisa A. Igloria
Luisa A. Igloria

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 Luisa A. Igloria.

Writing poetry is always a little archaeological—we dig and sift not only through our fund of experiences and memories, but also through a variety of textual fragments. As a writer in the diaspora, I am always reminded that the past, history, is a hallucinatory presence right here with us; that our life in the contemporary moment is marked by the displacements that time is eternally enacting.

In the news, we encounter stories about all sorts of anniversaries and commemorations: recently, so many articles on Bin Laden’s capture and killing last year; but also, I read the reminder that my high school friend and classmate, James Balao (whose 51st birthday was April 19), has been missing for nearly four years now since his political abduction by state forces on September 17, 2008. And then, I learn that a former student and friend, and one of my daughter’s grade school teachers who has made a life in Japan these last ten years, walked out of her home and marriage a month ago, with three very small children in tow—and has not been seen or heard of since. How is it possible? I am disturbed. I am disturbed by these unexplained rifts in time, by the unforgivable absences of explanations. And because facts alone, even when they are available, cannot assuage the terrible depths of these displacements, I turn to poetry for some kind of response, if not relief.

Because we are all involved in the drift of time, displacement is a function of contemporary experience—it is not something reserved only for us in the diaspora or for those of us who live with the legacies of colonization. History is a field at once very large and very intimate. But I like to think of the past as not completely done, of history’s archives as not static; we can enter the archive, we can reconstruct and re-imagine events, we can insert ourselves as figures or characters into its landscapes.

Continue reading “Curated Prompt: Luisa A. Igloria – “Poetry as Speculum””

Curated Prompt: Karen An-hwei Lee – “Wind”

Karen An-hwei Lee
Karen An-hwei Lee

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 Karen An-hwei Lee.

In Santa Ana, where I live, a curious wind rises only in autumn and winter. It is a hot, dry wind. Hair static. Restless dogs lie in the shade; quiet dogs are restless. In the “Los Angeles Notebook,” Joan Didion writes of the Santa Ana wind: “The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called ‘earthquake weather.'”

The wind is not named for any geographic origins here. Miles away, it starts with a downsweep of cool air that is slowly heated while crossing the high Mojave Desert into our valleys and coastal regions. Unsettling our routines, it sweeps across my city of gardeners and mission arches. Angelenos who spent their childhoods south of the Great Basin, who recall urban fires and great earthquakes, call it the “Santana.”

When the Santa Ana comes, the sun looms closer to the earth despite the winter solstice. Noon hangs, a sharp, angular hour, in the sky. Eucalyptuses toss dry leaves onto the asphalt, and no one sweeps them: no use. No one picks up broken pottery shards. Let the wind sweep everything clean, “for the wind blows wherever it pleases,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). After prayer, I close the shades, stay in the coolest room away from the lanai.

What is the tone of this wind?

I think of lines from “To the Tune of Wuling Spring” by the Song Dynasty woman poet Li Qingzhao. She was highly attuned to her surroundings, whether in days of plenty or of war and exile: “When flowers vanish / and wind ceases late in the day, / I am too tired to brush my hair.” Or these lines from her poem, “To the Tune of Sands of a Silk-Washing Stream”: “A far-off mountain range thins the falling dusk; / . . . as ineluctable pear blossoms, withering, wilt to fade.”

It is a desert wind, not a hurricane gale or a blizzard. As a girl, spending my childhood on an archipelago and two New England coasts, I experienced both of the latter. With the Santa Ana wind, tar paper tumbles in the road. I set out dishes to dry; a teaspoon of water vanishes. Night yields little relief as sea waves swell to the west. To the east, helicopters fly over spot fires in the hills and canyons where rough chaparral brush—yucca, black sage, manzanita—has weathered pre-blackened zones of controlled burning.

After moving to California, I learned two things.

With an earthquake, temblor-raised dust seeds the clouds, sending rain. After the Santa Ana calms, a fog always rolls in. I still do not know whether this is a sea fog or a land fog. On the coast, we have a phenomenon called a marine layer, so perhaps that is what this is. The temperature drops from the nineties to the seventies and even to the forties after sundown. I walk in the fog with my hair unbound and a fresh skirt, carrying mailed books in the welcome cool. Following a week of fire and smoke, I am grateful for the fog as a divine provision.

Prompt: Consider the rhythm of a wind you know well and write in this rhythm.

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she lives and teaches in southern California, where she is a novice harpist. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.

Curated Prompt: Jon Pineda – “Caesura”

Jon Pineda

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week’s installment was contributed by Jon Pineda.

Once, for training purposes at my job, I had to practice setting up an extension ladder mid-span, into that near empty space between telephone poles.  This space is usually connected by a cable lashed to a thin, metal strand.  At the top of the extension ladder are swiveled hooks for resting on the strand itself, so that there will at least be some resistance when it comes time to ascend the rungs, and then—once at the top, roughly twenty feet up—to attach the leather harness belt.  Then you simply lean back.  Ahead, there is nothing but the sky in front of you.

Though in that particular moment, suspended high above the ground, I was, of course, thinking about my physical safety, I couldn’t help thinking about other things as well.  That sky in front of me, for one.  It felt as though I could have fallen easily into that space.  Later, as I was working on a poem, I found myself thinking a lot about the caesura: the pause that usually occurs within a line of a poem.  I have always been interested in how this visual and aural delay aids in securing and distancing sections of imagery, so that the presence of a caesura is immediately felt by the absence it evokes.

Consider the first section from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Practice”:  “To weep unbidden, to wake / at night in order to weep, to wait / for the whisker on the face of the clock / to twitch again, moving / the dumb day forward— // is this merely practice?”  Voigt begins with a list of infinitives, each separated by a comma.  The reader is carried along by the undulant churning of each subsequent infinitive pushing into the next.  Then, the arrival of the dash halts the momentum just prior to the speaker’s question, “is this merely practice?”  The caesuras become a place that simultaneously allow the reader to rest within the pause and yet momentarily resist the unfolding tension of the poem.

I am grateful to Eileen Tabios for her contribution in resurrecting the work of the Filipino poet José Garcia Villa.  In The Anchored Angel, a book thoughtfully edited by Tabios, I first encountered Villa’s elaborate use of the comma, and I remember feeling confused and yet oddly at ease by this rush of punctuation.  In my mind, I kept hitting against the commas, until the words that preceded them became buffers for the next.  At that point, I settled into each word, pausing before and after:  “The, red-thighed, distancer, swift, saint, / Who, made, the, flower, principle, / The, sun, the, hermit’s, seizures, / And, all, the, saults, zigzags . . .” (from Villa’s poem “The Anchored Angel”).

In both examples I feel a presence at work.  Each point of pause tests the strength of the line.  It lets me, the reader, live in the suspension for just a little while longer.

Prompt: Write a poem that prominently features a caesura (or a number of caesuras).  Make the absence essential.

Jon Pineda is the author of the memoir Sleep in Me, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and a Library Journal “Best Books of 2010” selection.  His poetry collections include The Translator’s Diary, winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark, selected by Ralph Burns as winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and this summer, he will join the faculty for the Kundiman Asian American Poets Retreat held at Fordham University.  His poem “[we left the camera]” appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.

Curated Prompt: Stephen Hong Sohn – “Food Pornography Poems”

Stephen Hong Sohn

This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have been asking teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week, in acknowledgement of the fact that the work of reading and theorizing Asian American poetry is as important as the work of writing it, we’re changing things up a bit by adding a perspective from the world of literary criticism to the mix.  For today’s Curated Prompt, we have the privilege of collaborating with one of our regular guest contributors—Asian American Literature scholar and Stanford professor Stephen Hong Sohn—as he writes about one of his aesthetic interests and shares, for the very first time, a sample of his own (hitherto secret!) creative work.

Alexis Kienlen’s She Dreams in Red begins with my favorite kind of poem: the “food pornography” poem, which immediately problematizes issues of authenticity and Asian American identity. The lyric speaker often contemplates ethnic heritage as routed through her mixed-race background. What does it mean to so unabashedly crave ethnic foods, the lyric speaker seems to ask?  What can one claim ownership over, and what can one not?

Here is an excerpt from the opening poem, entitled “Chinese Café”:

“i want to savour pork dumplings,
dribble hoisin, garlic and black bean sauce over rice,
want to twist and drip noodles into my mouth,
lick my lips” (11).

The ending of the poem leaves us with this line: “this Chinese café stays open all night,” and we, as voracious readers, couldn’t really be happier.

Marking ethnicity is always a challenge within poems, but many Asian American poets such as Li-Young Lee and Aimee Nezhukumatathil have been able to explore gastronomic tropes with much complexity, and often with much humor.  At once, we understand that food can mark ethnicity, but that it can also be deconstructed or employed to complicate superficial consumptive habits. Food also provides a particularly rich terrain of vocabulary. As someone who can’t cook myself, I find cookbooks endlessly fascinating and endlessly ethnic. Frank Chin once made a scathing critique of writers who employ food pornography as a way to mark themselves as native informants, but it’s difficult to know when excess is intended or not. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll intend to push this excess, as Kienlen does when craving those “wontons” and “custard tarts” (11). Here is a food pornography poem I’d like to share:

Vietnamese food pornography poem #2: the sacred and profane

on this misted early morning
the haze ever so beta-particulate
japan’s nuclear crisis compared to Chernobyl
but culinary erotics distract me
the sensuous curve of the baked egg tart from Kang Lac
hand pressed pork puffs and steaming pork buns
so coy under the dim lights of Asian Garden Mall
Yum Cha Café boasts the understated elegance
of coconut crusted mochi balls with taro curd filling
flirtatious with such pliant, feathered skins
next door, Bánh Mi Saigon delivers me
into succulent hybridities: liver pâté, cold cut meats,
pickled carrots and turnips, all on French baguettes
postcolonial oriental cosmic

can i be so apolitically gastronomic
in these electromagnetic times
what intersections do i allow at Bolsa and Magnolia?
vendors at food stalls gesture in Vietnamese
frown, furrowed brows, shrugged shoulders
i profess that i am purely Korean
retreat into a bustling noodle shop
where my psychic sukiyaki emits a spectral glow,
brains scrambled in sinewy ramen, measured in sieverts
tripe floats on radioactive, soupy currents
bulgogi strips infesting this curry-flavored broth
as i later salt my phở with iodine and wasabi

Now, let’s see your version of a “food pornography” poem.

Prompt: write a poem that engages greedily, lasciviously—even pornographically—with the sensual pleasures of consuming “home” or “ethnic” foods in order to challenge, reimagine, or push familiar culinary markers of ethnicity into the realm of playful excess.

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Stephen Hong Sohn is an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University.

Curated Prompt: Eileen R. Tabios – “A Writing Prompt That Goes With the Flow . . .”

This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This Friday’s installment was contributed by Eileen R. Tabios.

My favorite writing prompt is based on Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day Feature. I once signed up to receive daily emails of their chosen “word-of-the-day” (you can also subscribe here). I used their daily word as a poem title. With that title—and subject or theme or however I responded to it—I’d then write a prose poem. As a secondary strategy to this prompt, I suggest writing a complete poem (or at least its first draft) in one sitting. Relatedly, I suggest the prose poem form, as I don’t wish the issue of line-breaks to interrupt the flow of the poem.

Trying not to interrupt the flow—and energy—of the poem is important, so feel free to add any strategies that would facilitate this. Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze, for example, has shared how he often doesn’t bother capitalizing “I” when writing his first drafts so as not to intrude on the flow of the poem (I don’t recall if he called it “flow” but that’s the net effect).(1)

I like several things about this prompt’s conceptual underpinnings. First, it helps to take you out of self-focus as the site for poetic inspiration. More poets need to realize their personal lives really aren’t that interesting to others (which is why, when I address biography and autobiography in several of my recent books, it’s not because I’m talking about myself, so much as because I’m disrupting conventional ways in which biography unfolds across genres—from the poem to the memoir to the third-party biography). Not that I’m dissing confessional or such types of poems; I’m suggesting this prompt as another way to generate poems where having a title or idea given to you necessarily forces you to address something that may or may not have been of personal concern. In this way, the prompt metaphorically writes the world into the poem rather than the poet writing something at the world.

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