We at Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry believe that Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with the fight against police brutality and systemic racial injustice. We also acknowledge our own APA communities’ complicity in anti-Black racism and commit to working against it.
APAs not only should stand for Black lives—we must. Here are some resources and places that our community can start.
Letters for Black Lives | Developed in response to the shooting of Akai Gurley by Peter Liang, this tool for explaining to our APA elders and loved ones why Black lives should matter to us provides helpful scripts in multiple languages than can help to broach the difficult subject of endemic anti-Black racism within our communities.
26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets| This pamphlet provides some sound advice about how to support protests and protestors even if you are not able to be on the ground in person. It also contains a helpful reminder to the API community to not allow our race or the model minority myth to be used as a wedge.
Talking About Race (Online Portal) | This educational site from the National Museum of African American History & Culture provides tools and information for helping educators, parents, and individuals committed to equity to engage in important and meaningful discussions about race.
Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit | This toolkit from the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO, covers an enormous range of helpful topics but also includes a specific “For Black Lives” section that covers useful information and provides exercises and prompts to aid in discussion, engagement, and understanding.
Open Letter of Solidarity from the Asian Minnesotans Against Racism & Xenophobia Collaborative (via Coalition of Asian American Leaders)
What else can I do?
If you are able, consider attending a protest. If you are a non-Black Asian American, use your body (and your privilege) to protect others when you can. Call elected officials and write letters, sign petitions, wield your vote at the ballot box (and speak up against voter suppression). It’s also important to amplify Black voices. Buy books by Black writers, share their work online, and support Black-owned bookstores. If you teach, include work by Black writers in your curriculums and syllabuses year round. If you are a parent, have conversations about racial injustice with your children and read books by Black authors and that center Black protagonists’ stories. Make a donations to organizations like Cave Canem that support Black writers and artists. Be thoughtful in your own written and spoken language, whether formal or informal (including online). Do not appropriate Black culture or African American Vernacular English (AAVE); do not engage in or support literary blackface; do not put yourself at the center of conversations about police brutality or other issues that affect the Black community. Most of all, read, learn, listen, acknowledge your privilege, combat racism within yourself, and educate others in your community. We can—and must—work for change together.
In anticipation of the ten-year anniversary of our first issue, we’re excited to return to our process profile series. Over the course of the summer, we’ll be catching up with past contributors as we ask them to reflect on their process for either a poem of theirs—whether one that appeared in LR or one that they’ve written more recently. Today, as we close out APA Heritage Month, we’re excited to kick off the series with a profile from Issue 4 contributor and former blog staff writerMonica Mody, who reflects on parsing both Motherlines and borderlands as she wrote her recent poem “Nani’s Letter” (first published in Kajal Magazine).
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“Nani’s Letter” was published in Kajal Magazine earlier this year. It appears, as well, in my 2019 PhD dissertation, “Claiming Voice, Vitality, and Authority in Post-Secular South Asian Borderlands: A Critical Hermeneutics and Autohistoria/teoría for Decolonial Feminist Consciousness.” I maintain that cross-genre and multi-genre writing makes space for the insurgent epistemologies of the borderlands—in this, I am joined by Gloria Anzaldúa, whose theory of the borderlands continues to animate new decolonized pathways.
“Nani’s Letter” is an epistolary poem, written as the letter that my grandmother might have sent to me across time—across the Partition of India—across the legacies of trauma and silencing. The violence my grandmother saw is not a matter of the past for the Indian subcontinent, which is yet to heal the national trauma of colonialism and of the Partition. What follows are synergistic excerpts that precede the poem in my dissertation.
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In 1947, my two-year-old mother lost her mother. Grandmother—Nani—was killed by a rioting mob during the violence that spread in the wake of the Partition of India and Pakistan. She was killed by the mob in her own village, along with her sister-in-law and nephew.
In 1947, I lost my mother’s mother. For a long time, I did not realize that this one loss imbricated multiple losses. Growing up, it was not only my grandmother who was absent from my life: entire lifeworlds she would have brought forth were absent too. Naomi Ruth Lowinsky writes, “Standing at the crossings of family history, generational change, and archetypal meanings, a grandmother locates her grandchild in the life stream of generations. She is the tie to the subterranean world of the ancestors; she plays a key role in helping a woman reclaim essential aspects of her feminine self. Standing close to death, she remembers the dead. She tells their stories, hands down their meanings and their possessions.”
Without a grandmother or grandmother figure around as a child, I did not have a guide into this wider circle of relationships. And yet, it was not a loss I fully comprehended. The silence around Ma’s family and what they had gone through shrouded my ability to perceptually be aware of the contours or depth of the loss. In writing about my grandmother, then, I am reclaiming not only her, but also myself from silence.
Crossing the Border
Before the Partition, Ma’s family lived in Dera Ghazi Khan, a district in the Punjab Province. The violence that erupted before the Partition took both Nani and the wife of Nana’s younger brother. The exodus also tore the family from the land they had lived on—their embedded histories.
These losses are also mine. The shared border between “me” and “them” is where silence has collected around these losses.
One way to recover the stories in this silence is for me to cross the border, return to Dera Ghazi Khan. I must recreate the borderlands to return to Nani—to mourn these losses and find healing. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Heeding this guidance from Anzaldúa, I will perform the return first in memory and in imagination. As I articulate this journey in writing, I want it to light up the hauntings, relationships, narratives in my motherline. I want it to intervene in the improbability of an actual return to Dera Ghazi Khan.
For a while, I become a proto-colonial armchair traveller, travelling to Dera Ghazi Khan via W. W. Hunter’s The Imperial Gazetteer of India. It takes me a moment to recognize the irony in this. The Imperial Gazetteer was among the projects undertaken after the 1857 Revolt to provide relevant and reliable information to the colonial administration so as to better map, measure, and control the native populace. It is a prototype of systematized knowledge production based on an ethnological focus on race, caste, and religion. The ethnographic accounts provided in the gazetteer—along with census reports—reflected the nineteenth-century colonial policy of relying on racial science to justify British domination over India. India was the “laboratory of mankind”—and in this laboratory all kinds of cultural differences between different groups of people were naturalized under racial and ethnic categories.
Unhappily, projects such as the gazetteer and the census also eclipsed all other forms of knowledge production. The epistemologies behind such knowledge production are precisely what I am seeking to decolonize within myself.
The Imperial Gazetteer does not recount the dreams of the people living in Dera Ghazi Khan in 1885. It does not tell us the stories that were told to its young or the songs that were sung around the fire. It does not seek to see into their hearts or the soaring of their souls. It does not give any sense of what they cherished or valued, of who they really were. Being attentive to these would have meant giving the colonized interiority—and ascribing to them a fullness of humanity.
Thegazetteerwas not interested in Dera Ghazi Khan as a place, which in cultural geography is a social concept. Place designates that which is “created by people: it is lived experience; it is the ways in which people use and imagine space.” This is in contrast to space: the physical, three-dimensional expanse. Space is a configuration of geography that enables distance—rather than intimacy—to be an interpretive norm. Space exists within conventional awareness because distance can be identified as an interval between separating objects. Distance, detachment, disinterest: these are the epistemological attitudes through which positivistic colonialist logic comes to articulate what it claims are universal organizing principles—and comes to disarticulate dignity, embeddedness, intimacy.
The gazetteer, with its claim of presenting empirical and statistical data, created sufficient distance between the people being studied and the “neutral” administrators undertaking the study to legitimize colonization. Colonial expropriation and subjugation depends upon articulating sufficient separateness between the colonizer and the colonized; the “data” in the gazetteer made this separateness possible.
This goes against my intended goals for performing a return—to come to a deeper, more soulful knowing of my grandmother and her affective life, to locate myself in the life stream of generations. There must, then, be a different way than a colonial tool to find my way back to my grandmother.
To Know: To Reconstruct
I was made by my grandmother, even if I never knew her. To know her, I turn to the relational hermeneutics of creative reconstruction, to imagination. It is not graspability I seek, but evocation. Without lived or inherited memories—amidst so many fragmentary narratives and silences—how may I rediscover my connection to this ancestress, to my motherline? How may I center my grandmother’s voice and agency? How may I restore to myself a voice that knows its own falterings, silences, and cries as part of a stream of generations?
 Lowinsky, The Motherline, 115.
 Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 87.
 Marriott, The Other Empire, 208–13; Arondekar, For the Record, 12–13. In her monograph engaging with the colonial archive, feminist and queer/sexuality studies scholar Arondekar suggests that the massive archive of texts from this period relied on for imperial governance “literalized the distance between colonizer and colonized.” Ibid., 13.
 Pinney, “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind,’” 252–63. As I read historian John Marriott’s research on the construction of caste and racial typologies in nineteenth-century India, I was nauseated to realize that these typologies continue to pervade the mindsets of contemporary Indians: that I, too, have unconsciously internalized the taxonomy of what Marriott phrases “physiognomy, colour, and physique.” Marriott, The Other Empire, 211.
 Marriott, The Other Empire, 214.
 Van Schendel, “Spatial Moments,” 99.
 Lawlor, Voices of the First Day, 41.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera = The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Arondekar, Anjali R. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
Lawlor, Robert. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Lowinsky, Naomi Ruth. The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots. Carmel, CA: Fisher King Press, 2009.
Marriott, John. The Other Empire: Metropolis, India and Progress in the Colonial Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Pinney, Christopher. “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind.’” In The Raj: India and the British, 1600–1947, edited by C. A. Bayly, 252–63. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990.
van Schendel, Willem. “Spatial Moments: Chittagong in Four Scenes.” In Asia Inside Out: Connected Places, edited by Peter C Perdue, Helen F Siu, and Eric Tagliacozzo, 98–127. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
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Monica Mody is the author of Kala Pani (1913 Press) and two cross-genre chapbooks. Her poetry also appears in Poetry International, Boston Review, Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, and Immanence Journal, among other places. She holds a PhD in East West Psychology and an MFA in creative writing, along with a more rarely used degree in law. She was recently awarded the 2020 Kore Award for Best Dissertation in Women and Mythology for her multi-genre dissertation which utilized theory, memoir, and poetry. Her previous awards include the Nicholas Sparks Postgraduate Writer-in-Residence Prize from the University of Notre Dame, Naropa’s Zora Neale Hurston Award, and the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing. Monica was born in Ranchi, India.Additional work drawn from her dissertation can be found here and here.
This groundbreaking anthology spans a wealth of different faith traditions, heritages, and experiences. From Kazim Ali to Li-Young Lee (and our own Mia Ayumi Malhotra, as well), the start-studded lineup featured here has earned it star billing on my (Iris’s) to-read list.
Although this book is prose rather than poetry, it felt like an apt pick for APA Heritage Month! I first heard Hong read an excerpt of it—an essay about Teresa Hak-Kyung Cha—at the Smithsonian’s Asian American Literature Festival in 2019. As with her poetry, Hong’s prose is unflinching, powerfully considered, and masterfully nuanced. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the rest.
Happy APA heritage month! This May, as our community grapples with the coronavirus crisis and the uptick in anti-Asian racism that has accompanied it, celebrating who we are and where we’re headed feels more important than ever. To start off the month, we’ve invited Yi Wei, a poet and undergraduate English and Asian studies major who has been documenting her conversations with other APA students over the course of the past year, to reflect on what she’s learned about the struggles, hopes, and dreams of her generation through her project Letters Home, as well as how being in conversation with Asian American youth and the work of her own APA literary heroes has helped her to find solace in the face of crisis and to begin, along with her peers, to carve out a place for herself in the world.
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In re-reading some of Franny Choi’s poetry, I come across a poem, “Quarantine,” she wrote in 2018. It’s not about this particular context, but the poem taps at something inside of me that is raw and scared and crawling in the wake of a visibly anti-Asian country. I indulge in a few read-throughs because I’m still finding tenderness in reading again. (Sometimes I think college has rewired my brain to analyze everything I read and put it away in a little box of topics I pick through and discuss in class or write in essays.) It’s quarantine that’s finally reconnected me with the books on my shelf. And it’s quarantine that’s on my mind, always, when I write about anything else now. Choi writes, “my job / was to stay clean and thankful / and mostly imaginary,” which I’m thinking about as this pandemic complicates the parts of my identity that I’ve been grappling with for so long, watching Chinese Americans mobilize in unprecedented ways and come into their own versions of being Chinese, being American, being Asian American. Our clean, imaginary, and thankful selves are being crushed and reborn. In the crushing, I feel an immense pressure for us to reconcile with our histories of violence against other communities of color, against our own, and against ourselves.
Reading anything of Franny Choi’s always reminds me of who I was when I read my first poem of hers, “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” about two years ago. At the time, I was figuring out what it meant to be fetishized and how I felt about it. I come from a predominantly Asian community, a predominantly first-generation Chinese and Indian American community (as much as I can come from a place when I was born in China and moved to Ohio first). Here, we don’t talk about race. We don’t talk about being Asian American because the idea is to be more than Asian until you are not seen as what you are. In this way, we are taught that being Asian American is a sin, or at least an obstacle on our way to white success. When I read “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” I didn’t like it. Or, rather, I yearned to like it, but I was just “a plastic bag lady,” not “revenge / squirming alive in your mouth.” Now I like to think I am, but it took a great deal of anger (misplaced and ill articulated, broadly measured and well spoken), sitting and crying, writing and reading, thinking and rethinking, to get to loving this poem.
In 2019, I received a summer grant from my college to live in New York City and San Francisco and begin a writing/interview project mapping a processing voice for Asian American youth. Over the course of the summer, I interviewed more than twenty Asian American college students on their conceptions of home and belonging; I also began a poetry and essay collection processing my own identities as a Chinese immigrant. This work evolved until I realized that what I was documenting was the way Asian American youth explained themselves to each other. As an undergraduate junior, I think that college is a particularly important site of tension where Asian American students are thinking about who they are and how (or even whether) being Asian/American is a part of that process. Many of my conversations, often in a place of significance to the interviewee, like a favorite restaurant or a specific rooftop, would last two or three hours at a time. We would share with each other about our families, frustrations, joys, and anxieties; about thoughts we could relate to and ways we fundamentally differed. I would ask them questions, and sometimes they would ask me back. Do you ever feel guilty? How do you fit into your community? Do you? When did you figure this out?Where is home for you? What was so discombobulating about doing this away from home (which for me, is with my parents) is that I was reframing the past, too—the things I remembered and had experienced before. In doing so, I began to reframe every version of myself that had existed before into who I am now. I don’t think this work was new to me, and it didn’t feel new to anyone I interviewed last summer. But it felt new to be talking about it and recording it and writing it.
While in New York City and San Francisco, I wrote, talked, and ate in the two biggest Chinatowns in the country and learned about a Chinese American history and identity deeper and sometimes different than my own. For a long time, I’ve been wondering if I should even be looking for community, and if so, where it is. When I entered academia, I realized that the resources to that community and my own history were part of a gated institution. So much of myself is built in academic language in classrooms with peers who talk the way I can, read the books I have access to, and share a glorified academic vision of what Asian American identities can be. Since then I’ve asked myself, is only the most actualized and academically deconstructed Asian American self valuable? Is that the only one that deserves space? The answer I’ve come upon is that it’s not. The way that Asian American students relate and process together outside of the classroom, organically with their families, about their histories, for their own safety, is a voice that deserves our trust. When we create space in our conversations for people to be confused and demanding and frustrated and bitter about their identities, it’s that honesty that connects and heals. This project drives me to envision and build towards communities that I’m at times a part of, at times at odds with, and at others—belonging to.
Part of belonging to histories that have been in some ways erased, but always embodied, is that I am always questioning. In hoping, imagining, building old histories and new futurities, we are constantly reshaped by what we find. API/A literature that questions and carves out a space for itself, like the poetry of Chen Chen, Fatimah Asghar, Terisa Siagatonu, and Franny Choi (among many, many others), inspires me to keep doing the same. Maybe I will always be looking for community, but for now, I find it in myself. I find it in these words. And I find it always in the people I have the privilege of talking to. Since last summer, I’ve continued hosting and transcribing these interviews, creating a living archive of topics that are personal to each individual I talk to. We’ve talked about fetishization, being “white passing,” hookup culture, familial guilt, adoption, migration, funerals abroad, PWIs—the list goes on. By loving, liking, and yearning for the world, we create the space for ourselves to exist loudly and in celebration. In this, we find home—and continue to hope for it.
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Yi Wei is a student at Swarthmore College double majoring in English literature and Asian studies. Her writing focuses on belonging, selves, diaspora, and motherhood; in 2018, she won the Lois Morrell Poetry Award for her poem “Shaving.” She is currently working on Letters Home, an interview collection that maps the processing voice of Asian American youth and is always looking for more API/A folks to engage and interview with!
Last week, we featured an excerpt from Arhm Choi Wild’s debut collection, Cut to Bloom, here on the blog. But Wild’s book is far from the only new collection by an APA poet being released this April; this National Poetry Month has bestowed us with quite the embarrassment of riches. Below are just a few of the exciting new titles that are on our radar this month.
Written in a span of two weeks after the death of the poet’s mother, this collection (Chang’s fifth) takes obituary as poetic form. It looks to be an intensely powerful read, and it’s on the top of this editor’s list to check out next.
Ypil’s The Experiment of the Tropics co-won the 2019 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize and is up for both a Believer Book Award and a Lambda Award this year. This collection finds the poet digging into archival history using photographs and documentary poetics to examine the colonization of the Philippines. His experimentation with form and text looks to be especially exciting—definitely a title to check out!
We first published Arhm Choi Wild’s work on our blog last June. Today, it’s our privilege to spotlight their debut collection, Cut to Bloom, which just launched last week. Cut to Bloom is a remarkable chronicle of love and loss, trauma and survival in which Wild’s singular voice and clarity of vision shine. In celebration of the book’s release this month, Wild and their publisher, Write Bloody, were kind enough to allow us to run an excerpt. The poem that follows, “13th Anniversary,” is a poignant meditation on labor, a tribute to the speaker’s mother and her years in the dry cleaning business. In the spareness of the prose form and the musical lilt of Wild’s language, we see a portrait of a parent for whom work, struggle, and sacrifice are a daily, lived expression of devotion and love. We hope that you’ll enjoy this sneak peek of Cut to Bloom—and that it will inspire you to check out the rest of the collection. It’s not one to miss!
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She walks in alone after hours, all the machines quiet though she can’t hate them today. The dry-cleaning tank is square and tall so she must stand on tip-toes to run her parched hands along the top, muttering old Korean in neat strands of sound. A piece of skin flakes off when she rubs the metal of the shirt press. The spot with burn stains, she circles twice. Every year she comes to thank the machines that break on her—thank them for the days they clean hundreds of sweaters and baskets of shirts, thank them for feeding her daughters though not her heart. She bows to the sheet metal too bent to reflect, creaks to her knees and rests her forehead on top of her hands in the ritual she has been handed down from her own mother, who will never know that her opera singer has come to worship the machines.
Arhm Choi Wild is a queer, Korean-American poet who grew up in the slam community of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went on to perform across the country, including at Brave New Voices, the New York City Poetry Festival, and Asheville Wordfest. Arhm is a Kundiman fellow with an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and was a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize in 2019. Their work appears in the Daring to Repair Anthology,The Queer Movement Anthology of Literatures, Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Split this Rock, Foglifter, Hyphen, Lantern Review, F(r)iction, and other publications. They work as the director of the Progressive Teaching Institute and as a diversity coordinator at a school in New York City.
Happy National Poetry Month! In honor of the occasion, we’re sharing thirty of our favorite, most imaginative, playful prompts with you on the blog this morning. Whether you’re participating in NaPoWriMo and writing a poem every day this month or you’re just looking for some occasional inspiration, we hope these prompts will bring out your inner, childlike creativity and help you refresh and renew your writing practice—during April or any time of year. (Pro tip from this former classroom teacher: these tried-and-tested prompts work great for young writers, too!)
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30 DAYS OF POETRY PLAY
Write an opposite poem (inversion). Take any famous poem and write the exact opposite of it, line by line. If the poem describes a “warm and fluffy towel,” turn it into something like “icy, hard concrete.” If the poem says that the speaker “sprinted,” have them “crawl.”
Write a poem about a color as if it were a person. Describe what it sounds and smells like, what it dreams about at night.
Write an abecedarian poem. Start with a line that begins with A, then add a line that begins with B, and so on, all the way down to Z. For an extra challenge, try continuing your sentences over multiple lines.
Stack up some books with their spines facing out and use their titles to make a poem.
Make up a superstition and write about what might happen if people don’t follow it.
Translate a classic poem into all emojis, word by word.
Write a poem that consists entirely of questions nobody can answer (like: “Where does the snow hide its mittens?”).
Find a picture or photo that intrigues you and write about what you see.
Write a poem that consists entirely of lies; the sillier the better.
Write a poem that takes a figure of speech literally. (What would happen if it really did rain cats and dogs from the sky?)
Write a postcard about the weirdest place you could imagine (like inside your sock drawer or on top of spaghetti covered with cheese), but describe it as if it’s an amazing vacation spot. Then mail it to a friend.
Make an erasure poem by taking another piece of writing (anything—like junk mail or the newspaper) and crossing out words with a thick, dark marker. The words that you keep are the poem.
Write a serious ode (a poem of praise) to an extremely ordinary, boring, or ugly object.
Write a poem in the form of an alternative definition for a word—using a meaning that you might not find in the dictionary. Get creative; tell a story about it or give examples.
Write a portrait of someone you know by describing an object that reminds you of them.
Write a poem in blank verse. That’s a poem that doesn’t rhyme and where every line follows this beat: ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM.
Write about a journey. Then make an upside-down poem by reversing what you just wrote so that the last line becomes the first line, the second-to-last line becomes the second line, and so on.
Write a poem where you intentionally break one grammar rule over and over again.
Write a recipe for something that isn’t food.
Make up a descriptive name for an imaginary body of water (like “The Bay of Cats” or “The Popcorn Sea”) and write a poem about that place.
Write a poem in the voice of a historical person or fictional character.
Borrow a line from a science or math book or article and use it as the title of a poem.
Write about a meal shared with someone you miss.
Write a poem about an activity where the sounds of the words imitate the sound of what you’re doing. If you’re jumping in leaves, crunch and crackle your way through each crisp line. If you’re drinking boba, let your words slurp and slosh and quietly squish against your teeth.
Write a choose-your-own-adventure poem where the reader gets to choose which line to read next.
Write a poem in the form of directions to a place (real or imaginary) that is important to you.
Write a poem in the voice of an inanimate object.
Write a list of things that you’ve forgotten. Then turn that list into a poem.
Cut up a newspaper or magazine article, then rearrange the words and make as many of them as you want into a collage poem.
Write a poem with a hole (literal, typographical, or figurative) in the middle of it.
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We’d love to see what you create with these prompts! Share a snippet with us on the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview) using the hashtag #LR30DaysofPoetryPlay.Happy writing!
These are strange and heavy times we’re living in. As many of us find the physical confines of our daily worlds suddenly reduced to the square footage of our homes, books—more than ever—can help us to feel connected to the outside world. Whether you’re restless, in need of solace, or simply lonely for another voice, here are some new and recent books by APA poets to keep you company.
Though LR contributor Michelle Peñaloza’s Hillary Gravendyk Prize–winning debut collection came out last August, it’s been on this editor’s reading list for what seems like forever. I was a big fan of Peñaloza’s 2015 chapbook landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias 2015), with its powerful, geographically grounded vignettes and close attention to imagistic texture, and Former Possessions seems to promise a similar deep engagement with the complex layers of trauma and history with respect to narratives of place and migration.
Sok masterfully weaves together the skeins of narratives left fragmented by the legacy of war, trauma, and diaspora with a skillful hand, moving fluidly between past and present; Cambodia and Pennsylvania. Together, the poems in this debut collection comprise a whole cloth that is by turns tender and unflinching—not unlike the beautiful length of strong yellow silk (handwoven by the author’s grandmother) whose image wraps the cover of the book itself.
Yes, PAGPAG is fiction, not poetry, but it’s by LR contributor and APA literary great Eileen R. Tabios—we’d be amiss not to feature it! Hot off the presses (it was released barely a fortnight ago), this collection of short stories is not one to miss.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. For this installment, we spoke with poet Soham Patel about punctuation, music, the rituals of preparation that surround her writing practice, and the James Baldwin story that inspired her gorgeous second collection,ever really hear it (Subito, 2018).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Where and how do you like to work when you write? What rituals help you to persist when you come to the page?
SOHAM PATEL: In my writing practice, I attempt to balance a fair amount of discipline and play. I like to write poetry in my home. My poetics believes that we embody language when we come to the page, so in terms of rituals I have several that persist: like these days, it’s making sure I do, even for just a few minutes, some kind of meditative exercise—like walk the dog or some yoga, even if it is just one concentrating breath to declutter my mind and detox my body. I also like to tidy up my home and then read as a way of honoring the work that’s been done before mine and has brought me to this privilege of being able to write. So today, for example, I skimmed these interview questions, folded some laundry and swept the floor, then reread James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” before sitting down to write this.
LR: ever really hear it takes its title from a James Baldwin quote: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.” And, in fact, music, sonics, and performance are a central motif of the book. Why music? Can you tell us a bit about how you came to choose music as a connecting thread?
SP: The protagonist in “Sonny’s Blues” utters this sentence in the final scene while he’s watching Sonny play jazz music onstage at a nightclub in Harlem. Baldwin writes so beautifully about music’s power, its ability to be both a cure and a force that could break you into a bunch of pieces. Sometimes we burst into song like we burst into tears or laughter. When I was growing up, music was ever present because my family spent a lot of time in cars, where my parents would play their tapes from India between songs my sister and I asked to listen to on the local radio stations. Music is a mystery to me in terms of just how its power works—to change a mood, for example, and how it works on a disciplinary level because I don’t know how to read it. ever really hear it was born from my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh MFA, where I was using my time to explore these questions I had about music through poetry. Ben Lerner taught us about how Jack Spicer believed the poet was transmitting messages from radio static. Poetry was a chance to interrogate lyric’s limits and the possibilities of the speaker in many contexts.
LR: Many of the poems in the book are headed by a series of four colons in lieu of titles. And, in fact, the colon becomes much more than a punctuation mark throughout the book—it’s a linkage for analogous terms, a break, a permeable membrane, a connecting track, a beat or rest in the line of the lyric, a musical notation in and of itself. Can you tell us more about the thought that went into this choice? Why the colon, and how did you settle upon the internal grammar of its usage throughout the book as you were putting the project together?
SP: The project—as a book—for me is, most importantly, a made thing. Most of the poems are meant to sit on one page so that the physical act of the turning of the page becomes a part of the pause that occurs while moving through the book. There are five poems towards the beginning of the opening section that perform as a sequence across more than one page and are connected by the “::::” colons. In early compositions I repeatedly listened to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Gold Lion” four times and wrote while trying to focus my listening to just the drums, then again for each guitar, then just focusing on Karen O’s words and vocables. At MFA school, Dawn Lundy Martin had us study Myung Mi Kim’s Dura, and that’s where I first saw the “:” on the page, hanging out at the top where a title should be, in a place where a colon traditionally would not be found. The subversion was so vanguard to me, and I began to think about how breaking punctuation rules might be necessary when building a poem’s structure in order to keep the language of it live. I am drawn to the stacked order and open space the colon holds, the way it is a parallel, mirrorlike. Four in a row is like a stutter to me and also an ellipsis turned to a stop. I wanted the colon to do all the things you list—and pay homage to Dura’s sequences.
LR: The work, as assembled, feels so beautifully seamless—like a continuous whole rather than a group of poems collected together. How did you go about approaching the shape of the project as you were composing?
SP: Thank you. In a manuscript workshop at MFA school, Lynn Emanuel suggested we make sure the last line of one page carried on somehow to the first words on the next page. After about four years of drafting the poems, the titles felt like a distraction, so I removed most of them, then titled each page “song:”—but that approach felt incorrect (like a placeholder), too, so I then removed titles and spent a couple more years moving each page into different movements. While I was doing this, I was also assembling the poems for my first book, to afar from afar, which was initially arranged based on the three Ayurvedic body constitutions, and so I decided to also try this structure out with ever really hear it. In the end I flipped the order and put the last movement first.
LR: A personal craft question for you: What are the road signs, the internal notes that tell you you’ve arrived, when you’re writing—whether you’re working on an individual poem or a larger project? How do you know when a poem is finished? How did you know when this manuscript was ready to go out into the world?
SP: In practical terms, I needed to send the manuscript into the world in hopes that it would get picked up so I could be considered for the kind of employment I was seeking after I earned my PhD. Otherwise, I practice poetry through large projects that require intense study, durational scope, and can take on various forms. I revise obsessively—and slowly. For this book, I approached the poem as I would a song. I used to play the guitar and sing, so memorizing lyrics and chord progressions has been embedded into me. A poem on a page is finished when I have it memorized—not always by heart but sometimes by sight or by ear; I can encounter the first line and anticipate what’s coming next, where and why the next en- or em-dash appears, and even where there’s space for spontaneity when performed. A good road sign for me is that when I can fully embody the poem (or it me), I have no doubts about each part of it and can account for every strategy made in building a thing that is solid but still porous.
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Soham Patel is the author of the poetry collections to afar from afar (The Accomplices, 2018) and ever really hear it (Subito Press, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, Soham is also an assistant editor at Fence and The Georgia Review.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent volumes of poetry about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. For this installation, we spoke with poet, translator, and zheng harpist Fiona Sze-Lorrain about the importance of listening, her belief in “time and erring from time to time,” and the pleasure of engaging Ye Lijun’s poems in her newest work of translation, My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: What first led you to the work of Ye Lijun? How did you come to translate her poems?
FIONA SZE-LORRAIN: This question is similar to “What first led you to writing a poem?” etc. Ye Lijun’s work appeals to me in part because we share similar preferences: music, visual arts, stargazing, a life outside the mainstream, and more.
LR: Your English translations of Ye’s poems carry a beautiful musicality to them. Can you describe your strategy for considering differences in sonics when translating across languages? What factors do you consider when translating Chinese sonics for the Anglophone ear?
FSL: The main thing I do is to practice listening, which might not be what one typically associates with translation when one translates. Some translators could be more concerned with the mot juste, the authenticity of texts, for instance, and these are legitimate concerns. I think beyond the technical, textual, or theoretical issues, there can be a more spiritual path. Once one starts focusing on differences—or similarities, for that matter—in sonics, and thinks about obtaining the “perfect pitch,” one is on a different path. To illustrate metaphorically, I cite two verses from Ye Lijun’s “Whereabouts”:
A mountain. Down the mountain a tunnel, sometimes echoes of singing late at night
LR: Did you have a favorite poem to translate from among those that appear in My Mountain Country? If so, what made the experience of working on it so pleasurable?
FSL: Yes, in fact, I do have several favorite poems: “Portrait at Forty,” “In Pingyuan Village,” “Grass-things,” “Back to Lotus Summit,” “Personal Life,” “Delirium,” and others. It isn’t difficult to share why the experience of working on these poems was, to borrow your words, “so pleasurable”: I like the poems, their narratives and simplicity. Beyond the “pleasure experience,” the poems themselves believe in contentment. They aren’t competitive and do not care about dominating others or being right. I am still learning much from the poems in My Mountain Country.
LR: You have also authored several original collections of poetry. How does your process for revising, ordering, and putting together a translated work differ from your process for putting together a collection of your own poems (if at all)? Are there any constant stars to which you find yourself returning time and again?
FSL: I have written three original collections of poetry. I don’t know if three is defined as several. I have written poems that can’t find a place in those three books. And I have written poems that are just terrible, even though they need to be written. The curiosity about one’s process of putting work together in aim of publication—in “book form”—is a results-oriented question and outlook. It produces a certain voyeurism. If one begins to figure a formula out for all these mysteries, in hope of applying it as frequently as possible to as many projects possible so as to achieve “success,” one is seeking a product and writing for a commodity culture or industry. It is hard for me to champion that sort of mentality. I believe in time and erring from time to time:
I have returned . . . Again and again in the backyard I plant seeds, mistakes, love —from Ye Lijun’s “A Mountain Hut”
LR: You say in your note at the end of the book that you first began translating Ye’s poems in 2011, nine years ago. When working on a project over such a long period of time, what helps you reorient yourself and gain a sense of overall trajectory each time you return to the work?
FSL: Why think of nine years as “long” or “short”? Three seconds can be short or transient, but three seconds in bed with a lover is another thing, another permanence. If you believe in time the way I do, this question will take care of itself. This goes for the anxieties of translation. The “kick” one gets out of poetry—and its translation—has to do with one’s willingness to take the path of and in an unknown spacetime.
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Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, and zheng harpist who writes and translates in English, Chinese, French, and occasionally Spanish. The author of three books of poetry, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, she has translated multiple volumes of contemporary Chinese, French, and American poets. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award and longlisted for the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Her latest translation is Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019). A Blue Dark, a joint exhibition of Fritz Horstman’s ink drawings alongside Sze-Lorrain’s poems and translations handwritten in ink on treated washi, was held at the Institute Library in New Haven last summer. Sze-Lorrain is a 2019–2020 Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. As a zheng harpist, she has performed worldwide. She lives in Paris.
— Note: This post was updated on 1/27 to reflect a corrected version of MY MOUNTAIN COUNTRY’s cover image and an update to our introduction: Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, and zheng harpist; not merely a poet and translator. Our sincere apologies for the previous errors.