Process Profile: Kenji C. Liu Discusses “A Son Writes Back”

Kenji C. Liu

Kenji is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tea Party Magazine (not related to the conservative movement), Kartika Review, Flick of My Tongue (KSW, 2009), and Kweli Journal. He has received a Pushcart nomination and is working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose and visual art. Kenji is currently the poetry editor at Kartika Review.

For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss pieces of theirs that we have published.  In this installment,  Kenji C. Liu discusses his poem “A Son Writes Back,” which appeared in Lantern Review Issue 2.

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Somebody’s calligraphy hung on the wall in the house I grew up in. I saw it every day. In my late twenties, on a visit back home, I asked my father about it. It was a poem written by my ancestor Guang-Chuon Gong almost eight centuries ago—advice to the Liu family.

The qilu is a classic Chinese form consisting of eight lines of seven characters each. I took my father’s translation and adjusted it to eight lines of seven syllables each. My responses to Gong follow this adjusted form.

A Son Writes Back” is one of several poems that has developed out of a challenge I put to myself years ago—to write about gender, specifically male privilege and patriarchy. This grew out of my community activism and graduate studies.

In this poem I am attempting to dig into some of what I have learned and internalized about gender. The original qilu speaks to, among other things, the importance of filial piety, and encourages the males in our family to prosper together. (I also find it fascinating that the original qilu implicitly acknowledges that our family would make foreign lands home.) In my responses, I am attempting to juxtapose eight hundred years of differences in perspective about gender roles.

For example, Gong tells us “foreign lands will become home”, and later, “young men, prosper together.” In my response, I bring up the story of our family’s migration from China to Taiwan, engraved in stone at our ancestor temple. It reveals who is apparently important in this crossing. The generational count on the altar starts with the sons, not the mother who carried them over. This is why I use the pinyin for both mother and horse.

As an Asian American man, I can not assume that Confucian patriarchy is something left behind in Asia, because I see it at work in my own family and communities. I wonder how it influences my life, and so I write.

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Excerpt from “A Son Writes Back”

Stay on course crossing borders.
Uphold ethics where you dwell;
foreign lands will become home.
Recall your parents’ teachings;
every day burn fragrance to
venerate your ancestors.
Heaven bless the Liu household.
Young men, prosper together.

After you, we crossed many
borders. Eight hundred sun turns.
At one point, a pegasus
landed two boys in Taiwan.
Mā/mǎ carried babies but
boys carried our name, the first
compass. This bypass is our
family, is our paddle.

From “A Son Writes Back” | Kenji C. Liu | Issue 2, Lantern Review | pp 3-4.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Michelle Peñaloza Discusses “Vestige”

Michelle Peñaloza (Photo: Janna Ireland)

Michelle Peñaloza grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Kartika Review, Mythium, Nashville Review and Birmingham Poetry Review. She was awarded the Women Writers Oregon Literary Fellowship for 2011.

For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profiles series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss pieces of theirs that we have published.  In this installment,  Michelle Peñaloza discusses her poem “Vestige,” which appeared in Lantern Review Issue 2.

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I wrote “Vestige” in response to one of Geri Doran’s prompts in my first M.F.A. workshop at the University of Oregon. I enjoy prompts, particularly Geri’s: they stretch my imagination and lead me, sometimes nudge me, to subjects and structures I would otherwise never have considered. “Vestige” began from a wonderful prompt: “Write a poem of slow praise or meditation. Find a space free from all distraction. Turn off your cell phone, don’t check your email. Be spare, intense, quiet, alone.”

When I began the first draft of the poem, it was a very hectic time—the end of my first term of grad school. For nine weeks, had been writing two new poems a week—one for workshop and one for a forms seminar. I was utterly exhausted by the time I got this prompt and initially had a hard time sitting with myself in the quiet, letting the poem happen. At the prompt’s suggestion I read John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and was, as I always am with Donne, struck by his conviction and devotion. As I began writing this poem, I reflected on how my ideas of holiness and faith have changed since I was a child.

I was raised Catholic, but no longer claim that faith. Yet, I still find value in recalling the sensory experiences of my religious upbringing—the candles, the incense, the quiet interspersed with canticles and scripture, the rituals of mass. Meditating upon these experiences in tension with doubt and within the context of loss, inform the first thirty or so lines of “Vestige.”

I think there can be holiness in poetry. I find awe and a spirit of praise in the mundane aspects of daily living. The rest of the poem is a catalog, an accretion of those things in my life at the moment of writing the poem. One exception is the anecdote about the old man doing the dishes, which came to me third hand—when I heard Lawson Inada re-tell this anecdote of Thich Nat Hanh’s.

I wanted to close the poem by returning to the materiality of Catholic mass, but I wanted to place that materiality outside the context of church and juxtapose it with mundane yet vital things—buttered toast, the breath of a lover, the washing of dishes. My aim with the poem’s syntax, catalog and anaphora at the close was to convey the music of discovery and the conviction of what is holy for me.

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Excerpt from “Vestige”

The creak of pews makes my knees ache,
my palms and fingertips kiss.
Phosphorus, censers, old mahogany,
old penitents close to death and God,
boxed wine, and candle wax work upon me
like the itches of an old collared jumper.
The poetry of worship seeps from memory to body.
I confess to the air.
Forgive me, Air, I cannot believe.
It has been three years since my last quiet.
I hold a rosary, count its beads
like the redolent string of rose petals
my Lola held close when she died.
After prayer, the attar of her rosary melded
with the garlic bouquet of her hands, bulbous
scents cradling, caressing my face.
I roll each pressed round between
my forefinger and thumb, keep count:
my guilt, lack of conviction, rage—
in this confession, my hands tell me
I am not free. I cup my tangled strand,
pass it between my hands. The attar
now lives in the leaf creases of my palms.
The quiet whispers, scent is memory’s companion.

From “Vestige” | Michelle Peñaloza | Issue 2, Lantern Review | pp 25-26.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Neil Aitken Discusses “I Dream My Father on the Shore”

Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken

Neil Tangaroa Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight which won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and was published by Anhinga Press in 2008. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Drunken Boat, Ninth Letter, Poetry Southeast, Sou’wester, and elsewhere.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Neil grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the western parts of the United States and Canada. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Brigham Young University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California – Riverside, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Neil discusses “I Dream My Father on the Shore,” the final poem in his collection The Lost Country of Sight.

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It was the summer of 2006 and I was attending my second Kundiman retreat at the University of Virginia. We’d been challenged to write a ghazal and when I sat down to work on the poem, I found myself linking the form’s tradition of exploring the ties between beauty and loss with my own memories of my father’s loss of his father. Although I’d written about that experience many years before, I felt that a different poem might reside in the space created by time and distance, and the way that dreams and memories alter our understanding of the past. I set out to craft something that would carry a certain dreamlike lushness, while reflecting the constant turn and return of the form.

The poem went through several drafts and gradually I realized that perhaps the ghazal was not the actual form it needed to take. I ended up trimming out most of the repetition, but tried to keep a sense of the original form present through sound and rhythm – like a ghost or an afterimage of the ghazal. Switching to free-verse opened up more possibilities, allowing the line-breaks to do more work and permitting me to extend images, phrases, and conceits over larger spaces in the poem.

As I worked on the poem, I found myself reflecting on my own relationship with my father and how he had once told me that he would not live a long life; that he would likely die young from one of the many health conditions he endured. His sense of mortality and the way he had offered the news to me before I first left for college all those years ago seemed in some way to echo a line from Wendell Berry’s “The Country of Marriage” and so I eventually included that line as the poem’s epigraph. By the time the poem was published by Sou’wester in late 2007, my father had passed away from an aggressive form of ALS and the closing lines of the poem suddenly became much more than dream or metaphor. When I assembled the version of the manuscript that became The Lost Country of Sight, I knew that this would be the poem to complete the book, and that those last images would be the ones I wanted to linger on when the final page was turned.

Below is the final version of “I Dream My Father on the Shore,” as it appears in Neil’s collection:

I Dream My Father on the Shore

What I am learning to give you is my death.
~ Wendell Berry

Outside, beneath the light of late October’s candled sky
the weave of ash and maple burns.  We stand silent on the graveled shore.
My father lifts his father’s ashes from its urn, a strangely heavy thing,
he seems to say, his arms swaying, then casting out into the long dark
as if to throw a line, while we wait for some sound, a wave,
whatever marks the distance between a father and a son.

And when night comes, it comes without a tread, without a word.

The stars flickering in their endless retreat, more distant and sure

than before, do nothing while the shadows continue to fill the trees
with their cast-off clothes.  The harvest is long past, the apples
have fallen to the orchard floors.  Even my father turning to go
is almost lost to the reeds already in his path, his figure no more
than a pattern of light – a memory of a road that winds
through the darkness to our waiting ride home.

Process Profile: R.A. Villanueva Discusses “In Memory of Xiong Huang”

R. A. Villanueva

R.A. Villanueva lives in Brooklyn. Recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Indiana Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, DIAGRAM, The Literary Review, and The Collagist. A Kundiman fellow, he is currently a Language Lecturer at New York University.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, R.A. Villanueva discusses his poem “In Memory of Xiong Huang,” which first appeared in the Winter 2009 Issue of Virginia Quarterly Review.

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Ars Poetica with Illuminated Bodies


At the heart of Michael Paterniti’s “The Most Dangerous Beauty” is a description of the Topographische Anatomie des Menschen that is, by turns, lyrical and grotesque. Truth be told, Paterniti’s cluster of renderings and pivots is less a “description” of Eduard Pernkopf’s life work and more a walking tour of his Anschluss abbatoir-made-studio.

Paterniti offers an unfurling litany, a conjuring of Pernkopf’s Anatomy that reckons with how “page by page” these medical illustrations grow increasingly “stunning, bombastic, surreal.” He affirms that it is “bone-and-muscle evidence, the animal reality of who we are beneath the skin” before doubling-back: “what if a number of these paintings have been signed with swastikas, what then?…Do the secrets revealed in the Book count less than the secrets kept by it?”

What starts as an unveiling of an atlas of the body thus becomes for us a visceral interrogation of how we reconcile our ethics with our want to see, our need to know. By essay’s close, beauty is everywhere cut with casualty and grief.

Continue reading “Process Profile: R.A. Villanueva Discusses “In Memory of Xiong Huang””

Process Profile: Ching-In Chen Discusses “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California”

Ching In Chen (photo by Sarah Grant)

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic, a novel in verse.  She hearts street food, the zuihitsu & other “hijacked forms” and gets lost easily. Daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is a Kundiman, Macondo and Lambda Fellow. A community organizer, she has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston.  She is the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, forthcoming from South End Press in 2011. She can be found online at

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Ching-In discusses her poem “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California” which originally appeared in the 10.2 issue of Diagram.

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This poem began at a Ching Ming (grave-cleaning) ceremony for the Riverside Chinese who hadn’t been sent back to China and didn’t have descendants to take care of them.  I felt a chill — of history, ghosts, untold stories, communal energy — as we gathered to read the names of the dead.  The list also consisted of death causes, occupations, ages.  As the roll call continued on in my head, what became clear was how much I did not know about these people.  At the time, I was teaching sections for Creative Writing and we had to read Rick Moody’s “Boys,” in which he repeats the same sentence over and over, adding in different meanings by adding layers over the sentence.  This made sense to me for my Chinatown dead.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Ching-In Chen Discusses “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California””

Process Profile: Tamiko Beyer Discusses “In this metropolis”

Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Beyer’s poetry has appeared in The Collagist, Sonora Review, OCHO, and elsewhere. She serves as the poetry editor of Drunken Boat and has led writing workshops for homeless LGBT youth with the New York Writers Coalition. She is a founding member of Agent 409: a queer, multi-racial writing collective, and is a Kundiman Fellow. She is pursing her M.F.A at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her online at and blogging at

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication.  Here, Tamiko discusses her poem “In this metropolis,” which first appeared in The Progressive in February 2008.

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I think it was April. I was writing a poem a day and running out of ideas. I turned to Charles Bernstein’s Experiments and chose the first one: a “homolinguistic translation,” a translation from English to English. I chose to “translate” Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “A Toast” because I was obsessed with his book Dancing in Odessa and wanted to live in one of his poems for a while.

The result: a whole new realm of diction. And a tone of contemplative urgency from Kaminsky’s poem that infused itself into my own, even when I eventually let go of the constraint.

Themes of home and community (ones I return to again and again) also echo from the source poem. Early on, it became clear to me that I was writing about gentrification. Living in a dynamically shifting part of Brooklyn, I am hyper-aware that what I do and how I spend my money isn’t just about me. There are ramifications across the neighborhood. I would have never set out to write a poem quite like this in tone and voice, but the exercise brought out a persona that gave me a strange kind of permission to push hard into this reality.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Tamiko Beyer Discusses “In this metropolis””

Process Profile: Janine Joseph Discusses “Postcard”

Janine Joseph

Janine Joseph is a Ph.D. student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared in Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Calabash, among other journals. A Kundiman fellow, she is a recent recipient of a Brazos Bookstore/Academy of American Poets prize and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. She holds degrees from UC Riverside and the Creative Writing Program at NYU where she taught with the Starworks Foundation and Community~Word Project. She currently teaches with Writers in the Schools and serves as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. Born in the Philippines, she was once a child actress.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication.  Here, Janine discusses her poem “Postcard,” which originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 themed issue (“Making Tracks: Escape or Journey”) of Nimrod International Journal.

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I first started thinking about “Postcard” when an old friend came to visit for a weekend in May of 2006. While waiting for our chicken kabob sandwiches at Mr. Falafel, I told Lucy, who had studied poetry with me in college, that I couldn’t get the image of a “soup kitchen—but not a soup kitchen” out of my head. I was fresh out of my first year in the MFA program at NYU and, with a stainless steel cup in my hand, I talked about Tupperware and a childhood memory. Lucy, being Lucy, listened and then told me what I had was a poem. What kind of a poem, I didn’t know. After lunch, we took the subway into the city and walked.

After an evening of writing in September, I brought “Soup Kitchen” into workshop. On the page, the poem was a perfectly square thing that could be cut, glued, and made to fit on a postcard. It included mysterious and humiliating phrases like “jalousie of life” in the last line. (Also, it used the color mauve.) What on earth did I mean by writing “jalousie of life”? I’m not even going to pretend I knew. What was clear by the end of my fifteen minutes of sitting silently during discussion was that the poem, according to my notes, was one part “lovely” and one part “this could go.” In class, I drew a line dividing one movement from the other.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Janine Joseph Discusses “Postcard””

Process Profile: Jason Koo Discusses “Man on Extremely Small Island”

Jason Koo

Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize (C&R Press, 2009) and a Finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Django.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication.  Here, Jason discusses the eponymous poem from his first collection, Man on Extremely Small Island.

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I originally wrote this poem for a workshop on ekphrastic poetry led by Scott Cairns at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I’d written the first poem for that workshop on a Hopper painting, which was predictable—so many poets have written poems about Hopper paintings. I myself had already written three poems about Hopper paintings.

So I went to Acorn Books, one of the used bookstores near campus, and started browsing through art books, looking for something I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to get away from the high tradition of Western art and do something unorthodox. After looking through shelves and shelves of books, I stumbled across The Collected Cartoons of Mordillo, a book of black and white cartoon drawings by this Argentine artist I’d never heard of before. His cartoons were hilarious, featuring little men and women with huge noses in various island and urban situations; they read like parables about modern life and relationships. I was drawn by his ability to tell whole narratives in just a few frames with no words. His sensibility spoke to me immediately.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Jason Koo Discusses “Man on Extremely Small Island””