On Poetry Potlucks, Part III – Guest’s Perspective (Elaine Wang)

Poetry Potlucks - Elaine Wang's Perspective
“I think part of the acceptance . . . comes from the potluck part, from the cakes and the dumplings. If you’re a decent human being, it’s almost impossible to not be kind with people with whom you’ve just broken bread.”—Elaine Wang

Guest Curated By Neil Aitken

For this installment of “On Poetry Potlucks,” our guest curator Neil has invited Elaine Wang, one of the guests at his very first poetry potluck (and an LR Issue 1 contributor), to reflect upon her experience. In today’s post, Elaine regales us with a tale of cake; rocks and mysterious masseuses; and the solace that she found through the group of sympathetic strangers gathered there.

* * *

There is so much cake.

I am at Neil’s first ever poetry potluck, and I’m mostly wondering how three people are going to eat two full-sized cakes.  And these are optimal condition cakes—one is a green tea roll with icing inside and the other gently sandwiches layers of jellied fruit.

I think I ate four pieces of cake that night, and that was just dessert.  Neil had made his famous sweet potato dumplings for dinner.

But more on the poetry part and less on the potluck part—after spending some time catching up and getting to know one another, Neil led Ngoc and I through a generative writing exercise designed to find the “heart of the poem” through bringing together seemingly disparate pieces of our lives and finding their points of contact.

I learned that I am obsessed with doors and a rock.  Not rocks, a single small, smooth rock.  Namely, the scented, wet rock a massage therapist had laid in the hole where my clavicles meet after an almost two and a half hour massage.  The massage was only supposed to be an hour and a half, but the massage therapist later commented that he had lost track of time because he had been so immersed in working on my body because it was in one of the best conditions of his clients (at this point of my life, I had been dancing more regularly in jazz and ballet).  I had felt it, too.  The whole session felt like a weird, non-sexual but completely physical communion.  For the next two weeks I was wracked with the following questions: Did he just leave rocks in everyone’s necks?  Was this a secret come-on, since it’s so taboo in professional massage therapist/client relations?  If I went back to try and find him (I didn’t know his name, and I got the massage through a Groupon), would they throw me out and would I be tagged on some sort of creeper list?

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On Poetry Potlucks: Part II – Guest’s Perspective (Jeremy Ra)

Poetry Potlucks - Jeremy Ra's Perspective
“We picture poets in the fragile grasp of a nocturne at dawn . . . not munching on pasta and fish fillet. Yet here it was, unintimidating . . . basic.”—Jeremy Ra

Guest Curated By Neil Aitken

In this installment of “On Poetry Potlucks,” our guest curator Neil cedes the floor to one of his past potluck guests, Jeremy Ra, who reflects upon the significance that his first experience at a poetry potluck held for him as a writer.

* * *

To Eat Enough Was
made three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not.
—Alkman fragment 20, quoted in Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson

“Dying” seems to precede almost any mention of poetry in the media nowadays, as if poets do not deal with death enough that we need to prepare for the imminent bereavement of the medium as a whole. We perceive this almost as an assault—cast as vanguards of the old, the out-of-touch that failed to catch up to the modern times. That it is begrudgingly, yet unquestioningly, recognized as “art” only makes matters worse. (“It’s an acquired taste,” I’ve heard. “I just don’t get it,” I’ve been told.) Its implications are great as it refines the most basic of tools we use to form a community, yet its efforts mostly fail to captivate a large audience. (“Doesn’t it need to rhyme?” I’ve been asked.) At times, it feels we shoulder this burden alone; chained Prometheus whose heart is poked out daily for his gift that furthered the human civilization.

I think that’s why I find most poetry workshops to have a feel of a support group veiling over them at all times. We are there to pay tribute to what most people in the outside world had forgotten. We hold the corpses of our poetic veterans in our hands as we read their works. We bid them well by trying to create something of our own that says some of us remember—let’s be honest here, you’re not at the happiest place on earth. Despite the invaluable kinship I felt with fellow poets (not to mention the impeccable feedbacks that transformed my poems from malformed placentas into near-swans), I fell into a workshop limbo and retreated my poems into the solitary confines.

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On Poetry Potlucks: Part I – How to Start a Poetry Potluck

The table at a past poetry potluck (Photo by An Xiao)
The table at a past poetry potluck (Photo by An Xiao)

A Guest Post by Neil Aitken

Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken

Editors’ Note: We welcome Boxcar Poetry Review editor and Issue 4 contributor Neil Aitken to the blog this summer as he guest-curates a short series for us about his poetry potlucks, a unique tradition combining food and literary community that he began several months ago in his L.A. apartment. Over the course of the next few weeks, Neil will be sharing about his experiences hosting and developing the concept of the poetry potluck, and may even invite a few of his past guests to share theirexperiences, as well.

In this week’s post, Neil discusses some of the background behind his poetry potlucks and provides some practical pointers about what it takes to host such a gathering. We hope that this post, as well as the rest of the series, will inspire you to carve out time to break bread with other members of the literary community where you live–and to maybe even begin a poetry potluck tradition of your own.

* * *

Whether you live in the big city or in a small town, writing tends to be a lonely labor and we often find ourselves craving opportunities to discuss our work and our interests with others who share a passion for literature and the arts.  Writing retreats like Kundiman and VONA are certainly helpful in providing us with safe spaces for sharing our work and inspiring us to innovate—they also provide us with the chance to meet fellow writers and artists who are exploring and challenging the contemporary literary landscape.  Once the retreat is over though, often, unless we live someplace with a significant population of our fellow participants, we’ll return home to our original communities and find ourselves back where we started (at least in terms of face-to-face contact).  While we may stay in touch with our new friends and peers through email and Facebook, these forms of contact still pale in comparison to time spent together.

One possible solution is to create our own spaces of sharing and interaction.   For the past several months, I’ve been doing this by hosting poetry potlucks in my little apartment in Los Angeles.

Potlucks are a powerful way of building community—they encourage sharing and interaction.  For my poetry potlucks, I ask each participant to bring a dish and a poem to share.  People often bring food that they’ve prepared at home, but it’s also perfectly fine to bring something store-bought.  My neighborhood is full of great restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, so even a late arrival can pick something up on the way in.

Likewise, there are no fixed rules about what type of poetry needs to be shared.  I let my guests know that the potluck isn’t a formal workshop—they are welcome to bring something finished that they want to share as a way of introducing others to their current projects, or they can bring copies of something they want feedback on.  The emphasis should always be on dialogue and exchange—a poetry potluck promotes active and engaging discussion, book and movie recommendations, brainstorming, and hopefully a fair bit of cross-pollination and creative inspiration.

These poetry potlucks have been a big hit here in Los Angeles—largely because they fill a vital role, providing a space where community is born and fostered.   Here are some suggestions and tips I’ve learned over the past year’s worth of poetry potlucks.  Hopefully these ideas will be helpful to you if you’re interested in creating a poetry potluck or something similar in your own community.

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Review: Karen An-Hwei Lee’s PHYLA OF JOY

Karen An-Hwei Lee’s PHYLA OF JOY

A Guest Post by Eugenia Leigh

Phyla of Joy by Karen An-Hwei Lee | Tupelo Press 2012 | $16.95

Eugenia Leigh
Eugenia Leigh

When entering Karen An-hwei Lee’s mysterious world of silver eucalyptus groves and Holy Spirits, the temptation is to dissociate. To keep that ethereal realm separate from the mud-and-waste Earth most of us know. But Lee’s power lies in her ability to unite both worlds. Instead of distancing the Divine from cigarettes and kitchen fires, Lee welcomes the one into the other. But the startling result isn’t a third world tangled with dichotomies. The result is Phyla of Joy, a portrait of the world we live in, but reclaimed through gracious eyes that somehow inject light into everything from famine to girls born with cleft palates.

Lee prepares her reader for this new world with her epigraphs, the first of which comes from a Davidic psalm: “For with You is the fountain of life; / in Your light we see light.” Immediately, the following formula is established: to find light on Earth, Lee’s poems—and we readers—will need to rely on the light of the divine “You.”

This “formula” seems simple enough, but how much effort does it really take for our generally afflicted human selves to seek out that otherworldly light? Lee addresses that tension between being human and craving something beyond-human in the book’s first poem, “Yingri.” In the Tupelo Press reader’s companion to Phyla of Joy, she notes that yingri is a Chinese word composed of two characters. While Lee tells us that the second character translates to “sun,” she allows the meaning of the first character to remain ambiguous in its multiple possible translations: “shadow,” “eagle,” “to reflect.”

The poem’s two stanzas add to our understanding of yingri’s duality. The first stanza, representative of earth and ying with its many meanings, reads:

Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house,
and an old ground swell beneath a garden boat.

The speaker’s observations in this stanza reflect the multiple meanings of ying with the word “or,” which reveals both the speaker’s uncertain sense of her human self and also the possibility of additional manmade constructions buried within her.

The second stanza constitutes ri—the sun and its associations with divinity:

Outside, on an acre of snow,
a winter sun, blinding.

What appears to be a small, four-line opening poem speaks volumes when pitted against the rest of the collection. We asked earlier how people can invite supernatural light into a worldly existence. And here is the answer: by blinding.

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Review | Tribalism’s Return: Bao Phi’s SÔNG I SING


A Guest Post by Greg Choy

Sông I Sing by Bao Phi | Coffee House Press 2011 | $16

Greg Choy
Greg Choy

After reading Bao Phi’s remarkable collection of poems, Sông I Sing, I was reminded of an incident that occurred about ten years ago when I was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. I was attending a panel discussion at UMinn entitled, simply, “Asian American Poetry,” sponsored in large part by Minnesota Poets Society, and was greatly looking forward to listening to two acclaimed Asian American poets speak on the topic. Disappointingly, the only thing the Society members, through their persistent questions about it, seemed interested in was the “poetic process”—and more particularly a process devoid of those nattering issues about race, identity, or politics. Toward the end of the discussion, an elderly white woman, clearly a senior member of the eminent Society, raised her hand and said, “Well, after listening to you both talk about your poetry, I’m wondering why we need to apply the name ‘Asian American’ to your poetry at all.” To my astonishment, at the time, both poets—both award-winning Asian American poets—agreed that the term “Asian American” as it’s applied to their poetry or to them as poets, felt limiting if not downright debilitating.

Such a response has its precedent. It’s reflective of the conundrum of the ethnic writer: how to keep from falling into the binary of either writing to a prescribed aesthetic steeped in a history of political ideology or writing as a fully realized individual shaped by an accumulation of discrete, personal experiences. It ‘s a false binary, of course, as a number of Asian American poetry anthologies have already shown, from The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America, edited by Garrett Hongo, to Premonition:The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, edited by Walter Lew, and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation edited by Victoria Chang. All three anthologies rally around the diversity of themes and poets as opposed to a unifying call to some singular identity and community. Though anchored from a historical perspective to linear coordinates such as identity construction and political ideology, Asian American poetry is not bound to those coordinates. It is a fluid, changing body of work in time and space.

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Review: Two Works by Ronaldo V. Wilson

Ronaldo V. Wilson
Two Works by Ronaldo V. Wilson

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Manby Ronaldo V. Wilson | U of Pittsburgh Press 2008 | $14

Poems of the Black Objectby Ronaldo V. Wilson | FuturePoem Books 2009 | $15

Stephen Hong Sohn
Stephen Hong Sohn

In this review, I discuss Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press 2008) and Poems of the Black Object (FuturePoem Books 2009). Wilson’s first full-length poetry collection might be more specifically described as prose poetry, as implied by its title. There are really no formal line breaks throughout the collection, so one is forced to consider what makes such a work poetry as opposed to prose. This genre-defying work’s title also clearly derives inspiration from two canonical African American literary texts: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In Wilson’s title, there isn’t any mention of the word “slave,” but the impulse to explore the conditions of subjection and domination are still very much there. Wilson’s work thus seems to enact a neo-slave “poetic” as derived through the queer racial minority’s subjectivity. The reference to the “brown boy” and the “white man” in the title also helps situate what actually occurs in the prose poetry blocks throughout the collection. “Brown boy” suggests that the lyric “I” is a mixed-race subject and likely an adult, but clearly one who does not have much access to economic resources. He is engaged in a homosexual relationship with “White Man,” someone likely older and with clearly far more money than the “Brown Boy.” Racial difference, class difference, and age difference, among other such distinctions, generate the rubrics of power and domination that mark the tension between “white man” and the “brown boy.”   Wilson’s work is raw, dense, and does not shy away from difficult topics, as demonstrated by the following excerpt, which is fairly indicative of the stylistic impulses of the collection:

“Go Shower. This command reveals [the brown boy’s] relationship to the white man. He follows his lover’s orders like a slave without anything but the promise of being fed and shown a movie” (64).

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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.

Review: Shin Yu Pai’s ADAMANTINE


A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai | White Pine Press 2010 | $16

Adamantine, as the title reflects, is a collection filled with luster, gleaming with deep insight, and further characterized by an ethereal landscape, focused on emotional connections, on spirituality, on death, and on the afterlife.  Pai’s work travels both within and outside of ethnic and racial frames, thus complicating any transparent categorization of the collection as “Asian American” literature.

Stephen H. Sohn

Nevertheless, the political character of many of her poems does make Adamantine speak to many of the field’s traditional concerns.    I begin this review further into the collection, with what I believe is the larger project of the work.   In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture,”  Pai’s lyric speaker considers the responsibilities of one who chronicles the lives of others:

of the witness
the I of the commentator

grubby children at the rim
of a Guatemala dump
stunned orphans in Russia (76)

The homonyms of “eye” and “I” function in different contexts, both on the level of ‘one who watches’ and ‘one who speaks.’ The following lines accordingly consider the issue of witnessing, with respect to the plight of global poverty. What is the responsibility of the lyric speaker, Adamantine continually asks, with respect to voice and sight?  In that vein, I’d like to concentrate on one of the overall lyric approaches that Pai takes, which is to place current events and historical figures in comparative perspective.  As part of Pai’s relational approach, the collection opens fittingly with an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost.  The passage from which Pai excerpts refers to prayers and mantras and explores how such spiritual inscriptions speak to individual loss and to aesthetic beauty.  At the same time, by invoking Anil’s Ghost, Pai sets Adamantine firmly within a tradition that queries human rights and global conflict.  Perhaps we are not surprised, then, when we find that the first poem’s title is “This is not My Story,” as if to immediately query the autobiographical impulse of the confessional lyric.   The lyric stories of “Adamantine” are often those of Asian or Asian American figures who move beyond the speaker, including Thich Quang Duc in “Burning Monk,” where the lyric speaker repeats, as a kind of mantra, “his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn” (19).  Of course, Thich Quang Duc is most famously known for his self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War.  The use of the word “heart” arcs out across this collection.  We are reminded in the very first poem, “This is not my Story,” that the “human heart is / a wholly different animal, / we must sense when to give in / before the other gives up” (11).  The importance of emotion and affect imbues the lyric speaker with a kind of power, leading her toward a pathway that involves spiritual reawakening.  Another figure invoked is James Kim, the Korean American who died tragically when he and his family were caught in a winter snowstorm in Oregon. The lyric speaker gestures again to loss, but contextualizes his death within the frame of sacrifice, as James had attempted to situate help for his family despite the possibility that he could have succumbed to the austere weather conditions.

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On the Small Press and Asian American Poetry: Tupelo Press

A selection of offerings from Tupelo Press's list

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Stephen H. Sohn

In an earlier post, I had the chance to discuss the exciting growth in Asian American cultural production via the small press, especially as it has impacted poetic projects and publications.  In this post, I’d like to concentrate on Tupelo Press, another small press that has developed an outstanding catalog which includes both Asian and Asian American poets.  Among the offerings in Tupelo’s current catalog are:

Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker by Phan Nhien Hao (translated by Linh Dinh)

Abiding Places by Ko Un

Ardor by Karen An-hwei Lee

Why is the Edge Always Windy? by Mong-Lan

At the Drive-In Volcano by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words (chapbook) by Barbara Tran

In this post, I will concentrate most specifically on Barbara Tran’s In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words, Karen An-hwei Lee’s Ardor and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s At the Drive-In Volcano and Miracle Fruit.

Tran’s chapbook is one that I have chosen to teach for my Introduction to Asian American Literature course.  What I find so breathtaking about Tran’s work is her clarity of image, which always imparts a precise sense of a given moment or time through its use of lyric.  The chapbook also has a clear sense of lyrical trajectory.  The earlier poems seem to be invested in rooting out heritage and ethnic origin, especially as rendered through a growing romantic relationship.  The latter poems dig more deeply into the diasporic trajectory.  It is here where the chapbook becomes more autobiographically inflected.

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On The Small Press and Asian American Poetry: A Focus on Four Way Books

Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List
Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Stephen H. Sohn
Stephen H. Sohn

In thinking about the so-called state of contemporary Asian American poetry, I am most struck by the issue of the proliferation of small presses that have remained afloat through print-on-demand publication policies and through the strategic limited print-run system.  American poets of Asian descent have certainly been a beneficiary of this shift as evidenced by hundreds of poetry books that have been published within the last decade.  In 2008 alone, there were approximately 20 books of poetry written by Asian Americans, the majority of which were published by independent and university presses.  Of course, on the academic end, the vast majority of Asian American cultural critiques, especially book-length studies, have focused on narrative forms, but the last five years has seen a concerted emergence in monographs devoted (in part) to Asian American poetry, including but not limited to Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (2006), Interventions into Modernist Cultures (2007) by Amie Elizabeth Parry, Race and the Avant-Garde by Timothy Yu (2008), and Apparations of of Asia by Josephine Nock-Hee Park (2008).  As a way to gesture toward and perhaps push more to consider the vast array of Asian American poetic offerings in light of this critical shift, I will be highlighting some relevant independent presses in some guest blog posts.  I have typically worked to include small press and university press offerings in my courses, having taught, for example, a range of works that include Sun Yun Shin’s Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press), Eric Gamalinda’s Amigo Warfare (WordTech Communications), Myung Mi Kim’s Commons (University of California Press), Timothy Liu’s For Dust Thou Art (Southern Illinois University Press).

In this post, though, I will briefly list and consider the poetry collections by American writers of Asian descent that have been put out by Four Way Books (New York City), headed by founding editor and director, Martha Rhodes—and will spend a little bit more time discussing Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).   Currently, Four Way Books’ list is comprised of:

Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004)

Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light (2005)

C. Dale Young’s Second Person: Poems (2007)

Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s Shadow Mountain (2008)

Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).

Were I to constellate the commonalities between these five collections, it would be clear that the editors at Four Way Books are very committed to the lyric approach to poetry, in which the connection between the “writer” and the lyric speaker seems more unified.  I have taught Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light in the past, specifically for my introduction to Asian American literature course.  What I find most productive about this collection is its very focused attention on “lyrical issues” of the mixed-race subject.  In The Price of Light, one necessarily observes how distance from an ethnic identity obscures any simple claim to authenticity and nativity.  In The Price of Light, a lyric speaker returns to one vexing question: what does it mean to be Thai?  To answer this question, the reader is led through a unique odyssey, where issues of poetic form, tourism, and travel all coalesce into a rich lyric tapestry.

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