In honor of Banned Books Week 2016, the Lantern Review Blog has solicited a list of recommended reading from its friends, former staff, and past contributors. These are titles that our community has identified as works too important not to be read; that is, books that ought to be defended, rather than challenged and/or removed from bookstores, libraries, and classrooms. Join us and the rest of the book community as we celebrate the right to express and to seek ideas through literature. And don’t forget to leave a comment below, if you’d like to contribute to this list of books that you believe we deserve the freedom to read!
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Corona by Bushra Rehman (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013)
“Corona is a dark comedy featuring Razia Mirza, a young Pakistani woman from Queens, NYC. When a rebellious streak leads to her excommunication from her Muslim community, she decides to go on the road, but it doesn’t take her long to realize traveling as a Muslim woman is quite different than traveling as Jack Kerouac.” —Bushra Rehman
culebra by Roberto Harrison (Green Lantern Press, 2016) “Roberto Harrison’s tercets investigate, uncover, the ways in which a landscape, a history can embody the mythos of an animal. In this case, the snake: ‘The Kuna Indians of Panama make their molas in pairs. According to this tradition, things arrive in the world in pairs, so as to create a third from the union. As we are limited in our binary thinking, the snake points away toward the integral through a triad, toward a more whole understanding of the world. It knows the silence of death in the ground of the living. It heals as it sees with his tongue and symbolizes an alternative way of knowing.’ ” —Mg Roberts
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (Bantam Books, 1984) “Set in the aftermath of World War I, Johnny Got His Gun is a scathing commentary on the realities of war and raises troubling questions about taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when someone does not wish to live. The main character, Joe Bonham, lives as a prisoner in his own body, having lost his arms, legs, and all of his face after being caught in the blast of an artillery shell.” —Kathleen Hellen
Lettres philosophiques (1734) by Voltaire (University of Oxford, 2017) “This book of twenty-five letters by Voltaire has been translated as Letters on England (Penguin Classics) and Letters Concerning the English Nation (Oxford World’s Classics), among other editions. My favorite letters are the ones about Newton and Descartes, British tragedy, and Pascal’s Pensées.” —Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino (Cleis Press, 2008) “Opening Up is an excellent introduction to polyamory, the practice of having multiple romantic relationships at the same time with the knowledge and consent of all involved. The percentage of people who practice some form of ethical non-monogamy has been growing rapidly in recent years and polyamory has been called a lifestyle choice, a sexual orientation, and a relationship orientation.” —Clara Changxin Fang
Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino American PoeticsEdited by Nick Carbo (Meritage Press, 2004) “Pinoy Poetics was long overdue when it was released in 2004. A collection of autobiographical poetics by Filipino and Filipino American authors, it remains fresh today. Even as many of the book’s poets since has received major awards, Pinoy Poetics remains unique in representing the concerns and interests of Filipin@ poets, which are often reduced or elided in categories like ‘Asian American,’ ‘poets of color,’ et al.” —Eileen R. Tabios
The Argonautsby Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press, 2015) “I wish I’d had a wise aunt like Maggie Nelson to talk to when I was growing up, or this book. I’ve read few better meditations on love: and death, and pregnancy, friendship, motherhood, birth, family, gender, the pain of losing love, loving a parent who’s dying, love and sex, loving anal sex… The first paragraph will make people want to ban this book. And it gets better after that so we need to protect it.” —JoAnn Balingit
The Butcher’s Wife by Li Ang (Peter Owen Publishers, 2002) “Set in a Taiwanese village in the 1930’s, this is a harrowing morality tale of violence and patriarchy. It’s the most frightening, gory book on the oppression of women I’ve ever read.” —Joseph O. Legaspi
When the Chant Comes by Kay Ulanday Barrett (Topside Press, 2016) “When the Chant Comes is a love song for all the ‘queer hungry parched kids,’ for those who gather in many tongues, for those whose bodies hold memory across ocean and scar, for those who desire and deserve rest and dream.” —Ching-In Chen
This month, we had the pleasure of talking with writer, dancer, and designer Jai Arun Ravine, who recently published The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide(Timeless, Infinite Light, 2016). Join us as Jai shares about the wormholes and winding side streets that led to the creation of their remarkable new book, which takes the pervasive specter of Orientalism in Western tourist writing head on. Read more of Jai’s book reviews here on the Lantern Review Blog.
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LANTERN REVIEW:The Romance of Siam is so many things: travel guide, satire, cultural artifact, poetry, critical theory. In more ways than one, itsays everything I’ve ever wanted to say about the ways the Western imagination constructs “Thailand” for itself—and, as you say, how Thai tourism perpetuates this fantasy for its own profit. So thank you for this vital, truth-telling work! The funny thing is, though, that in telling this truth, you tell very little actual truth—most of the pieces are fabricated, parodic, and relentlessly satirical. Tone is a notoriously difficult thing to manage in satire. How did you manage to keep it light, and yet, not pull your punches when it counted? Was it ever hard to keep playing the part, so to speak?
JAI ARUN RAVINE: In my research, I was constantly struck by the absurdity of everything in my path. I stumbled upon uncanny parallel traces, and hilarity abounded as soon as these seemingly disparate elements began to collide. Because I took myself, as a physical presence, “out” of the work for the most part, I began to choreograph these landscapes where actors and characters became my pawns. Something about having this kind of power over the board helped me stay “light,” I think. It allowed for my chess pieces to perform “the absurd” for me, and every time I moved them, they would inadvertently expose the stains of Orientalism that lay underneath it all.
LR: Beginning with the opening “Hints to Walkers” and continuing through the rest of the collection, your book is also profoundly intertextual, a ferocious, chimeric beast that begs, borrows, and steals voices from an impossibly wide range of cultural artifacts: screenplays, song lyrics, travel guides, promotional materials from the Tourism of Authority of Thailand, newspaper articles, early 20th-century novels, etc. How did you discover the sheer scope of the book? Did the subjects emerge as you proceeded through the project, or did you already know that there was a particular “canon” of relevant films, songs, and historical figures that you wanted to address?
JAR: When I began researching and writing for the book, I had a Fodor’s map of Bangkok marked with sticky notes for a few people, artifacts, and conceptual frameworks that I knew I wanted to explore further. But so many things emerged as I began to dig, and all the side streets began to wind and run into other side streets. I fell down a wormhole of “white elephants” and looked up everything in the library that had “Siam” or “Siamese” in the title. The song “One Night in Bangkok” led to The Oriental Hotel led to W. Somerset Maugham, in the same way that Anthony Bourdain led to Jerry Hopkins, and Jim Thompson led to Pat Noone. At a certain point, I had to make myself stop, because I realized there really was no end to the Orientalist and tourist archive; it constantly replicates itself. The final scope of the book arranges itself around theme and sequence, as well as destination and landscape.
LR: I’m fascinated by the ways in which you, as the author, exist as a felt present throughout the book, primarily via the “Information” and “Did You Know?” notes at the bottom of each page, where you comment, offer factoids and footnotes, and express interest in various critical features of the project. I was also struck by the moments when “you” enter the poems: you watch your mom talking to Tiger Woods’ mom; you play Anna in Jim Thompson’s low-budget film, The Silk King and I. What did it mean to you to introduce your own subjectivity—mediated, at times, by complex layers of form, fictionalized encounters, and performed identities—into the text? Was this always the plan?
JAR: In contrast to my first book, แล้ว and then entwine, where the writing came from a very personal need to define my relationship to ancestral histories and inherited silences, it was incredibly freeing (and a relief!) to take my ego out of the work. I imagined landscapes in which characters and actors from movies and plays could mash up and interact with each other. I could move through these icons as a kind of ghosted, energetic, electrical presence, and perhaps even hint at that nostalgic, “authentic” Thai essence that exists now as a work of fiction or as fusion cuisine.
Of course I couldn’t take myself out of the writing entirely, though, and especially in “White Love” and “Backpackers,” I make my anger toward white supremacy clearly known. But I think it was an important challenge for me to write a work in which the balance weighed more heavily on the other side of the scale. I did get completely caught up in directing my own theater, however, and at a certain point, it became too confusing for the reader—too many references, too crowded, too inaccessible. At that point in the draft manuscript, I circled back into the work, and with the guidance of writer and friend Marissa Perel, I realized that the moments when I inserted myself back into the text (when I stand side-by-side with Yul Brynner or Anthony Bourdain, for instance) were even more powerful than providing an anger-driven commentary on Orientalism’s devastating wake, or choreographing an intricate puppet show. I made a conscious choice in “The Silk King and I” to cut and paste “myself” into the scene, which I think made it stronger.
LR: You appear to speak most transparently in the opening “Hints to Walkers,” where you preface your project with the comment, “As a mixed race person of Thai and White descent, my attempts to connect with Thailand as ‘place’ and ‘cultural identity’ are colonized by tourism and White desire. […] This projects attempts decolonization in the face of such an erasure.” How did you make the decision to include this statement, along with the other prefatory remarks in “Hints to Walkers” at the opening of the book?
JAR: I have always found context extremely helpful. When an artist provides context for viewing their work, it gives the viewer a framework and a way into the experience. A lot of times, I read the work of a poet or see a choreographer’s dance performance, and if I’m not already familiar with the project, I’m distracted by the burning desire to know: What are the major concepts you are grappling with in this work? What is your relationship to the subject? How do you hope this object or performance will function in the world? I felt that stating these kinds of things at the beginning of my book (and during it) was crucial to its reception.I also outline some version of this before every reading I give. “Hints to Walkers” functions as a trail map, which lets people know what to expect on the journey. I see the “Information” and “Did You Know?” sections as other important trail markers that offer the reader both context and guidance.
LR: The Romance of Siam is, in so many ways, an unprecedented work of poetry, cultural resistance, and history. At the same time, I’m aware that even the most unprecedented work, no matter how wildly it reinvents genre, has its precedents. Who were the writers and thinkers who broke ground for you? What did you read, and to whom did you look for inspiration in the writing of this book?
JAR: I generated most of the initial material for The Romance of Siam during a residency at Djerassi in 2011, and one of the books I took with me was Jo Ann Wasserman’s The Escape. I read this book during Akilah Oliver’s course “Eros in Loss in Poetic Construction” at Naropa University in 2005. While I had never written much in classical forms, when writing The Romance of Siam, I remembered Wasserman’s book and the way she used the form of the sestina to work through her grief around her mother’s death. The sestina felt incredibly obsessive, but also somehow incomplete. The thing that one was grasping for could never be reached; it was a culmination without release. That feature of Wasserman’s work led me to writing a bunch of my own sestinas. Once I started, I couldn’t stop; the form just seemed to fit perfectly with my material (the Orientalist/tourist fantasy) and my relationship to it.
Even though I began reading the book after much of the material had already been generated, I am also indebted to Edward Said’s Orientalism, because he helped me identify a larger historical context for the project.
LR: There’s a fabulous moment at the end of The Romance of Siam when Jim Thompson’s character says that he wants to “purchase all the novels White man has written on Thailand and found a rare books annex” in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel—which I suspect exists, if perhaps only in spirit, as The Romance of Siam. This venture is described as a kind of “theatre within which [Thompson] has engaged much of his strange expertise and cultural knowledge,” a notion I find fascinating, given the particular prominence of theatre and performativity in your book. I was wondering if you could speak to the role of performance in your own life as an artist—or even as an individual, especially because I know you’re just as much a performance artist as you are a writer.
JAR: Performance is such a strong concept in The Romance of Siam because Orientalism itself is truly a performance that has been culled and animated from texts since the 1800s. Most of the West’s engagement with the Orient during the 1900s was via movies, film, and theater plays, and the stage is where its ideas and representations of Orientals (played by white actors in yellowface) are performed, solidified, and made legend. The way Yul Brynner performed the King of Siam, and royal Thai masculinity is forever burned on the collective psyche of contemporary culture. Theater is also a space where fact and fiction become blurred, a blurring I found again and again in Orientalist writings and tourist texts; Thailand was always more of a work of fiction, more like something from a book, than a real place, which is, in fact, where Orientalism’s true power lies.
In relation to my artistic practice, I trained in ballet from a young age and modern dance since college, and as a writer, I have always been drawn to the making of work that bridges text and body, which has led me to spoken word, video, and performance art. So creating a stage where I try to perform as Yul Brynner or Anthony Bourdain or Jim Thompson in this book sort of unmasks the constructions of race, gender, and the Orient and the Occident that I find so necessary.
LR: I have to ask, has there been much of a response to The Romance of Siam from Thai readers? Do you have any plans to work on a translation of the book? As many of us know, Thailand—like many other countries—fiercely policies foreign portrayals of its nation and subjects, and many of the films mentioned in your book (The Beach, The King and I, etc.) have been banned by its government. How do you think a Thai audience would receive The Romance of Siam, a depiction of the depictions deemed unfit for Thai consumption?
JAR: Ever since I created my short film Tom / Trans / Thai in Thailand and screened it at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre, Payap University, and the Alliance Française in Chiang Mai, I’ve come to understand that my work arises from its own specific context, which I very much define as of and related to the American QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) experience. The reception to my film in Thailand was not as meaningful for me as it was when I screened the project for QTPOC audiences in the States. So I suppose I’m feeling hesitant as to whether the book has relevance or solvency for Thai audiences. However, I have received some responses from queer Thai American friends, who I think can understand feeling both “inside” and “outside” with regards to Thai identity, being absurdly “mashed” with regards to race and representation, and being a tourist to oneself.
LR: Finally, what are you working on now?
JAR: I’m collaborating with writer Coda Wei on an experimental drama of text, comics and .gifs called Ambient Asian Space. We’ve been writing together since September 2015 and have recently started to release selected episodes here. I’m also working with choreographer iele paloumpis on a new dance work as part of the Oceanic End project, which we’ll be performing at a Draftwork showing at Danspace in New York City on December 10.
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Jai Arun Ravine is writer, dancer, and graphic designer. As a mixed race, mixed gender and mixed genre artist, their work arises from the simultaneity of text and body and takes the form of video, performance, comics, and handmade books. The Romance of Siam is their second book. For more information, visit their website: jaiarunravine.com
It may still officially be summertime, but for those of us who balance our writing lives with scholarship and/or teaching, it’s already time to hang up the vacation gear and dust off the books in preparation for a new academic year. Thus far in this summer’s series of reading recommendations, we’ve brought you a couple of short critical reflections that have teased out thematic similarities between some recent collections by #ActualAsianPoets, but this month, in honor of back to school, we’re highlighting a three recent anthology titles (or to be technical, two anthologies and one edited collection of critical prose) that feature #ActualAsianPoets and that we think would be wonderful editions to the classroom this semester.
Weaving together poetry, prose, and visual art, Kuwento, whose title means “story” in Tagalog, explores the notion of myth as told and retold by voices from the Philippine diaspora. Writes coeditor Melissa R. Sipin in a blog post on Kweli, “It is with this book we hope the invocation of the past is somehow answered, somehow quelled, somehow excavated, and thus reborn—reborn in our own terms, in our own myths, in our own kuwentos.” Containing selections by M. Evelina Galang, Oliver de la Paz, Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, Barbara Jane Reyes, Brian Ascalon Roley, Aimee Suzara, Eileen Tabios, Nick Carbó, and others, Kuwento appears to be both thoughtfully curated and expansive in its scope. We’d be eager to see it added to syllabuses for Asian American or Filipino Literature courses and workshops on the undergraduate or graduate levels. As with other groundbreaking anthologies such as How Do I Begin? (the seminal Hmong American anthology that we reviewed a few years ago) or Indivisible(the first anthology of South Asian American poetry, which we reviewed here and here), Kuwento could also likely work well in a community workshop context and perhaps even (in excerpted form) for younger students.
In this slim but mighty volume, Timothy Yu brings together four critical essays by female Asian American literary scholars, each of which focuses on a different pioneering Asian American women poet. Exploring the life and work of Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil, Nests and Strangers draws together thoughts on both the biographies and aesthetic impulses of each poet in order to better understand the import (and impact) of each of their poetry. It would be a wonderful resource for an advanced undergraduate seminar, especially for one focused on feminist poetics or Asian American literature.
Though not specifically an Asian American literature-focused anthology, Family Resemblance encompasses a diverse selection of literary voices, including a number of notable Asian American and Pacific Islander ones (e.g., Kazim Ali, Jenny Boully, Craig Santos Perez). The notion of hybridity is, of course, one that we explored in some depth in our fifth issue, and especially when contextualized with the metaphor of inheritance, as in this anthology, formal hybridity has unmistakable thematic resonances for scholars and students of ethnic studies and postcolonial studies. Personally recommended by our associate editor, Mia, Family Resemblance would fit well into almost any workshop setting (especially one exploring experimental or nontraditional forms) and would also be a wonderful means by which to diversify a syllabus and open doors for deeper consideration of issues of race, class, and gender in the university classroom.
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For those of you who are teachers, what diverse books are you including on your syllabuses this term, and what are some APIA-focused anthologies or critical collections you’ve taught that you’ve found to be especially successful? And if you’re a student, what are your dream APIA lit reading assignments for an inclusive workshop or literature course experience? We’d love to hear from you! Please tell us in the comments or chat with us about it on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
Happy August to all of our readers, and to everyone who’s headed back to school soon, we wish you a smooth transition and a fulfilling academic year!
This month, we were delighted to have had the chance to converse with poet and professor Patrick Rosal about the recent release of his fourth collection, Brooklyn Antediluvian. In our discussion, recorded below, he reflects on the themes and mythologies that shape the book as well as on the publishing process and the influences that music and young people have had on his work. (For yet more on Rosal’s process and inspiration, you can find our previous interview with him here.)
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LANTERN REVIEW: In Brooklyn Antediluvian, water is a central motif. It serves as a force that sweeps the movement of the collection along and is a metaphor for the violent submersion of identity enforced upon the colonial subject under the auspices of imperialism. How did you come to settle upon this motif? Why water, and what was it about the image of destruction by flood that compelled you?
PATRICK ROSAL: First, thanks for reading the book and doing this interview. I feel real lucky to have Lantern Review make space for this new collection.
Growing up in New Jersey, we were always in and around water. And I think we have a special relationship to water as Filipinos in America, having been the descendants of monsoon rains and of people who had to cross miles and miles of water (my grandfather was a sakada, a sugar laborer who sailed from Manila to Hawaii for work). Also, I have real specific memories of water—like my brother almost drowning when he was a toddler or the image of me and my cousins heading out to the Jersey shore mid-week to dive into the waves. And then there were the storms like Katrina and Ondoy and Sandy all in a relatively short period of time, each of which touched me in very personal ways. At some point, probably after I got a sense of the title poem, “Brooklyn Antediluvian,” I realized this book was going to be about waters and floods—which is to say, literal floods from those storms, but also the floods of memory, of roses, of violence, of joy, of names, of gentrification.
LR: The collection draws its name from the final piece in the book, a long poem that commands nearly a third of the text. What appeals to you about the long poem as a form? What was the process of drafting this particular long poem like for you, and what motivated your decision to structure the collection in this way, with the shorter poems up front and the long poem as a finale?
PR: My poems have been getting longer over the course of my four books. In Boneshepherds, I had a poem, “Ars Poetica: After a Dog,” that felt massive, and in a lot of ways it’s a heftier poem than the title poem of Brooklyn Antediluvian, though the more recent poem is a lot longer in terms of pages.
In “Brooklyn Antediluvian” I loved having enough space to make things disappear and then suddenly show up again. I loved getting lost as I was writing because the language kept leading me away from any static subject. And just when chaos might take over, some small connection to a previous image—a rose or horse or name or the boy whom the speaker meets in the first line—would come back. It’s a different kind of lostness from [what you might find in] a short lyric. It’s a study in departure. Also, it gave me a big enough world that many histories and continents—especially in small narrative scales—could exist in the same text. All of this, for me, is a metaphor for seeing and living. I want to see if it’s possible to build a world in language that accommodates epochs and landscapes that seem to have nothing to do with one another. This seems to be the source of a lot of our trouble—parts of our world are so belligerently segregated from one another. What does a Berber pope have to do with a Filipino dietician who died in New Jersey, anyway? A long poem doesn’t just reveal those unusual and often wonderful associations, it finds a music—a pleasing sonic pattern—with which to connect them.
When I first started compiling the poems I wrote after Boneshepherds, I felt a real strong impulse to make a book that could still reach people who don’t consider themselves poetry readers. When I drafted the long title poem, I knew I had something that was going to be challenging even for audiences that consider themselves aficionados of contemporary poetry. I sent the manuscript out to friends, and they made it clear to me that I needed to set up a world of images, places, figures, and rhythms to help prepare the reader for the long poem at the end. Originally, I had the long poem at the front of the manuscript. In the final version of the book, [in which the poem’s at the end], I think readers have a stronger relationship to the ways of looking and singing that the title poem tries to sustain for a longer period of time and on a much bigger scale, with much trickier leaps.
This month, our Summer Reads include Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut(Four Way Books, 2016) and Kenji C. Liu’s Map of an Onion (Inlandia Books, 2016), two remarkable debut collections that feel so fully conceived, so urgently and articulately expressed, that one hesitates to call them “debuts,” as these are clearly two poets who have been at this for longer than the term “first book” implies. Deeply theorized, expertly crafted, and placed squarely in conversation with the poets’ respective family histories, cultures, and discourses of science and post-colonialism, these works draw the reader into a thoroughgoing investigation of what it means to be human, delivered into a specific time, body, and cultural milieu. These poems are the maps they have fashioned for themselves, forging a poetics of reckoning in pursuit of generational and lived truth.
In The Taxidermist’s Cut, Rajiv Mohabir’s lines, both sinister and lovely, function as cuts that reveal and divide, shimmering with the erotics of violence. Transfixed, one finds oneself unable to look away, arrested by the elegance of the language and the way, when held to the skin, it causes the body to shiver with pleasure. The line, the body, the text, the means by which bodies make and destroy themselves; “Pick up the razor. // It sounds like erasure.” Formally, the couplet features prominently throughout, raising the question of what’s joined, what’s split, what adheres together and what pulls apart. Stitched through with found text from Practical Taxidermy, The Complete Tracker, and other taxidermy-related manuals, the poems confront the body with a mixture of scientific detachment and intimacy, as the life of the body—its homoerotic desire, its violation—is rendered in acute detail. Members of Mohabir’s family, past and present, drift in and out of The Taxidermist’s Cut, as, marked by a pilgrim poetics of wandering, the book moves through the West Indies, the South, boroughs of New York City, reckoning with memory, desire, and histories of conquest and slavery. These poems are breath caught from the throat, blood cut from a wound—the cry that follows, in pleasure, in pain, indistinguishable from song.
Kenji C. Liu’s Map of an Onion, a work deeply textured by memory and place, maps its own set of explorations beyond and within cartographies of language, national borders, and the body. Like Mohabir’s, Liu’s subjectivity is shaped by multiple histories and homelands, all impressed upon a poet who writes with deep sensitivity to the pre-colonial realities of place, drawing us into greater awareness of what it means to be American, immigrants, humans. “Ghost maps are hungry maps,” he writes, tracing lineages and interlocking histories through time. It’s a mapmaking of the self, a “search translated between my family’s four languages.” Marked in places by profound longing (“Home is on no map, and explorers / will never find it. That time has passed”) the poems, in their searching, take us from Mars to Moscow, suburban New Jersey to the World War II Philippine jungle. The book itself, neatly sized and beautifully produced, fits compactly in the reader’s hand and brings to the body an awareness of itself as a artifact translated across cultures, yet possessing a language all its own. Map of an Onion, too, concerns itself with the act of incision, especially of paper, “the surgery of documents” cutting ruthlessly across land, sea, and families. What binds and what breaks—folded, torn. “Taste your own / luscious // fissures,” the poet says, the places where selves meet; the sinew, cartilage, and tendon of bodies that are bound and, simultaneously, transcendent.
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What books are on your summer reading list? We’d love to hear about them! Leave us a comment below or share your best recommendations with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
With this month’s interview, we’re delighted to feature poet, librettist, and creative writing professor Janine Joseph. She currently teaches at Oklahoma State University and is the author of Driving without a License(Alice James Books), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. In this interview, Joseph reflects on the book-length poetic projects that influenced her first collection, Charles Wright’s notion of sottonarrativa, and the separate (yet related) “neighborhoods” of her brain where she composes libretti and poetry.
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LANTERN REVIEW: First off, congratulations on your debut poetry collection! It’s such an accomplished work—so deeply engaged in the current political moment and your sense of personal and cultural history. Can you tell us a bit about your literary influences? Who have your models and mentors been, and what shadows do they cast across your work in Driving without a License?
JANINE JOSEPH: Thank you for the congratulations! The book is two months old now and it still feels so strange to know that it is out, living its own life in the world.
I’ve written before about how long it took me to write Driving without a License—how it began, fifteen years ago as a novel, and how the first poems that made it into the final version of the manuscript were written ten years ago. I start by saying this because I amassed a number of influences in those years.
Here is one model/mentor thread: At a summer poetry retreat in Idyllwild, CA, just before my junior year of college, I attended a panel with Natasha Trethewey and Cecilia Woloch, among others, and first learned about the poetic sequence and the long poem. Trethewey discussed her recently published (at the time) poetic sequence, Bellocq’s Ophelia. Sitting beside her on the panel was Woloch, who talked about her book-length poem, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem. This may have been the year that I stopped thinking that the only way to tell my story was via the novel. That I could, as Stanley Plumly writes, wholly surrender myself “to the material, its memory and the time it takes to reiterate how impossible it is to approximate, let alone articulate, pain” through poetry (which I was already writing) was, if you’ll forgive the pun, a novel idea. I knew even then that what I was writing about refused completion. I was not, in other words, done with what I had to say about identity and undocumented immigration in one, two, or three poems. Each poem begged another’s precision, and before I knew it, I was revising everything I’d so far written, hoping one poem would “get it right.” It was much later that I learned that one poem may get one aspect right, but I needed a cohort of them, together, to get a much larger idea “right.”
What Trethewey and Woloch taught me is that there exists a form that, perhaps with more deliberate intention, allows poets to revisit a specific theme, image, idea, or event. Poems suddenly, to my younger self, had stamina and could endure an identity that, as Whitman would put it, contained multitudes. I grew ravenous for these sustained meditations.I built a list of “project books” that, many years later, shaped my third comprehensive exam when I was working on my Ph.D.
In addition to reading Natasha Trethewey and Cecilia Woloch, I studied Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, Martha Collins’ Blue Front, Nicole Cooley’s Breach, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, Louise Glück’s Wild Iris, Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, Tyehimba Jess’ Leadbelly, A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, Laura Kasischke’s Space in Chains, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, Thylias Moss’ Slave Moth, Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, and Derek Walcott’s Another Life, among many others. All of these books, without a doubt, have varying preoccupations—from the Vietnam War to Hurricane Katrina to the home sphere, etc.. However, much like their musical and prose counterparts—concept albums and composite novels, respectively—these books organize an experience or idea with the goal of enhancing our understanding of that experience or idea by asking us to consider the poems in the collection as a group, as a unified whole.
LR: We’re impressed by the way your poems evoke deep anxieties in the personal realm, but also take on large political issues, as in the lines “The spouse / battered by a U.S. citizen spouse Find the widow(er) / The one you will petition to marry The headless / bodies in the Arizona desert” from “Between Chou and the Butterfly.” How do you manage these shifts between the private and the political realm?
JJ: In an interview by the Paris Review, Charles Wright discusses how when he was writing China Trace, he experimented with something he calls a subnarrative, or undernarrative. The sottonarrativa, he explains, is, “The smaller current in a larger river. The story line that runs just under the surface. It’s broken, interrupted, circuitous, even invisible at times, but always there.” A sentence later, he explains, “It’s a continuous story line by someone who can’t tell a story.” When I move from the private to the political, and vice versa, it’s because both occupy the same space, exist at the same time, in me. My position in the world has been, and continues to be, one wherein the personal is political, and the political personal. I cried the first time I was able to vote, at the age of thirty. I am both the person in the newspaper and the person reading the newspaper. Sometimes, the personal is the smaller current; sometimes it is the larger river—and the other way around.
LR: One of the many interesting features of your book is the use of initials to refer to various friends and family members. Can you tell us more about the significance of this naming device?
JJ: To explain how/why I arrived at the decision to use initials requires some backtracking. Here goes:
Because I was thinking always about the bigger picture, or what my individual poems would coalesce into, I allowed each poem the space to deal with whatever needed dealing with without having to clear my throat at the beginning each time to announce that I was writing about an undocumented American experience. I do not, for example, explain why the speaker has no license in the poem “Driving without a License.” As expected, relying on my project’s backbone sometimes proved difficult when bringing a poem into a new workshop with peers. I remember clearly the day I brought in “Always Hiding,” a poem that begins in medias res, as if overheard, and how the conversation of the group was immediately derailed. One person argued that the speaker of my poem, “clearly an immigrant,” was therefore “a nonnative English speaker” and that what we were overhearing was not the voice of someone struggling to explain why she was constantly lying to protect herself, but, rather, the voice of someone who couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in English. The thesis posited, of course, became complicated by the fact that the poem begins, “which kept me in school and was, of course, / a lie.” This was “inconsistent,” she explained, being “too grammatically correct,” and needed to be revised. Luckily, being far enough along in my project, I knew when to shake off such suggestions.
…the aspect of self such poems most forcefully represent is its uncatchability, its flittering, quicksilver transience… It is a self that does not stand still, that implies a kind of spectral, anxious insubstantiality. The voice is plenty sharp in tone and sometimes observant in its detail, but it is skittery. Elusiveness is the speaker’s central characteristic. Speed, wit, and absurdity are its attractive qualities. The last thing such poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.
For a time, especially in the earliest stages of Driving without a License, I was a poet in hiding and, as a result, wrote poems with a voice always in hiding. While I wouldn’t say I was “skittery”—my poems ached and strove for a “center of gravity… body… [and] emotional value”—I was guilty of sometimes being purposefully evasive, relying on a charming voice that could lie its way out of any sticky situation. I was also guilty of writing poems that refused to reveal what on earth they were actually talking about.
Many of the failed, early attempts at the poems that would eventually make their way into the book read like I had blindfolded the reader and spun them around—as if playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey—and let them go. What this impulse was ultimately an indication of, of course, was a young project and an experience that was still too close to me. I had not yet learned how to be an effective storyteller who could remake new stories with fragments of others. I also had not yet developed a voice or a speaker that could carry the weight of the story. I was still the “I.” As a result, I was afraid of disclosure and of my imagined readership. When Hoagland says, “Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence,” I thought about the dangers of withholding the very information I worried would give me, or others, away. I identified areas in my poems where I filled omissions with tangential storylines—I was free-associating, so to speak, as a method of diversion—and revised. To omit names, leaving behind only a single letter, was liberating. It allowed me, complete with my story, to “come out.” I invented a character of myself. Then, out came S., D., B. (who arrived, unexpectedly, in a poem I thought was about S.), and the house of J’s.
LR: We found ourselves swept up by the dreamlike, incantatory quality of poems like “Landscape with American Dream” and “Wreck,” and noted that in addition to being an accomplished poet, you’ve written a number of libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco. What’s the relationship between song and verse in your work?
JJ: All three libretti written for HGO/HGOco were commissioned pieces, so song and verse have so far occupied separate neighborhoods in my brain. My poetry education came first, though, and I know that being a noisy writer, one always attuned to (and muttering aloud) the music of my words and lines, helped me transition into the world of opera. Still, when working on commissioned pieces, I do have to be mindful of the constraints and scope of each project. For my third libretto, for example, I had to be sure that what I wrote would be accessible to junior high and high school students (we even had study guides), as well as the general public and Houston-area lawyers (the piece was designed to tour the city of Houston). I do not think of audience in the same way when writing a poem, and I certainly can compress much more into a line composed for the page—relying, for example, on what happens at the moment of enjambment—than I can in a line meant to be sung.
When writing a poem, too, I think about diction in terms of choosing the exact word; when writing a libretto, I think about diction in terms of how a word might be enunciated. Sometimes, I land on the same word, sometimes not—and then I make a revision.
It’s almost as if my brain is a child moving between two amicably divorced parents living on opposite ends of town. I’m doing similar poetic work in both genres, of course, and in fact, with my second chamber opera, I worked with a composer who asked me to scan my lines so that he could see the stressed and unstressed positions/syllables of the words. Here, my worlds very much overlapped, and all of the rooms in both houses, as well as the streetlights in both parts of town, lit up—under a Supermoon, no less!
(I suspect I will have to write an essay about this one day.)
LR: While your book ranges across a variety of geographic spaces and times in the narrator’s life, there’s still a clear structure and chronology to the poems. Can you tell us about how you sequenced the collection? What advice would you give to emerging poets working on a first book?
JJ: It’s amazing to me that you are complimenting me on the sequencing of the collection, as I got it so very, very wrong for so many, many drafts. Once, the collection was in three sections. Once, it was in five sections. The four-section version—the version that is the book—was born when I was asked, “Why is this written in five sections?” and all I could muster was, “Symmetry.” Imagine, now, that I answered with an uptalk.
When assembling the collection, I thought quite a bit about the beginnings of Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution and Martha Collins’ Blue Front. Long before I knew how the individual sections would be structured, I knew how I wanted the book to begin, what kind of precedent I wanted to set. I remembered the advice that one of my teachers, Eamon Grennan, had given me—about how before I could invent a new landscape for my readers, I had to first pave the streets and erect the signposts I wanted them to follow. I thought a lot about world building. I thought about Charles Wright and how I might establish the sottonarrativa.
In earlier versions, figuring out the political situation of the speaker felt much like the way Rubén Martínez describes crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Crossing Over: “You have to hike in total darkness, through mountains that block out the beacon of city light…. You take a long walk in the dark.”
Some, perhaps, helpful-but-not-helpful advice: Read, a lot. Specifically, read books similar to the one you want to write or are writing. Study the choices made by those poets—learn both the how and why. Be open to shuffling and reshuffling, to knowing what doesn’t feel right as an opportunity to move toward what does. Listen to the advice of your most adept reader-friends. Stand clear of the closing doors.
LR: So much of the language in Driving without a License is breathtaking. We were particularly struck by these lines from “Soup Kitchen”: “the leaves on our trees / were a hundred jazz hands, the sun a cow, or a moon, / depending on the day, the time, the tendered / sashay of this earth.” Where did these images come from? In writing these lines, how did you access such luminous, lyrical language?
JJ: I am so in love with this question, and feel my years and worlds colliding! When Lantern Review asked me to contribute a “Process Profile” in 2010, I wrote about this very poem (though in 2010 it was called “Postcard”). More, the poem first appeared in Nimrod International Journal—a journal that comes out of Oklahoma.
LR: What are you reading right now? Any recommended summer reading?
JJ: Because I am in the throes of moving from one landlocked state to another, my summer reading list, this year, is short. I just finished Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Right now, I am in the middle of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which has stimulated my brain into a bioluminescent creature. I am also a quarter of a way through Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian. Soon, I will have a copy of Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK in my hands. Soon, I will be reading folders of information about my new health insurance, what new retirement planning options I will have with my new job, etc.. All very important, necessary (and recommended) reading.
LR: So, what’s next for you? Any exciting projects?
This summer, my partner, beagle, and I are headed to Stillwater, OK, where I will be joining the creative writing faculty at Oklahoma State University. I am hoping, too, to have more time to do more serious work on poems about traumatic brain injuries, and what it was like to become a naturalized citizen.
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Janine Joseph is the author of Driving without a License (Alice James Books), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays about growing up undocumented in America have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, Waxwing, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a- Day series, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, “On This Muddy Water”: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother’s Mother. Janine is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University.
It’s the season of travel. Schools are out, the weather is warm, and all over the country, people are preparing for journeys to faraway locations—vacations to new and unfamiliar destinations, but also often returns to the places that they identify as home. Of course, for the immigrant and the child of diaspora, “home” is an inherently complicated construct, riddled through with ghosts—of war, of imperialism, of other kinds of trauma—and with the specters of displacement and isolation and the feeling of perpetual rootlessness. In this June installation of Editors’ Corner, we’re featuring two recent collections by Asian American poets that explore this fraught relationship to geography, migration, and the notion of home.
Melody Gee’s The Dead in Daylight(Cooper Dillon, 2016), her followup to her debut collection (which we previously reviewed here), parses the map of family geography with finely tuned musicality and a delicate and beautifully precise attention to image. In its pages, the reader drifts through an imaginative pastiche that splices together scenes from the domestic and the natural (from the garden to the living room to the hungry sea that laps at the seams of the collection and consumes the speaker’s mother in the final poem) and moves fluidly between the realms of the living, the dead, and the interstitial territory of memory and dream that lies between. At once origin story and narrative of perpetual departure and return, The Dead in Daylight digs undaunted into the wreckage of generational memory, recalling inherited histories of loss and longing and building around them delicate, earthbound constructions: beautiful, otherworldly houses of paper and bone, mud and salt, ink and flesh, that gather together the scattered geographical detritus of the immigrant lens together under their rooves—motherhood and labor, revolution and famine, rituals of birth and burial, the land and the ghosts that inhabit it. The poet intuits the fertile lyric possibility nestled within the silences and undocumented blips in a familial narrative that reaches across continents and generations, and like her speaker, who returns again and again to the garden, she tenderly plants them in earth, where they put down roots and bloom like the speaker’s asclepia (or milkweed plants, favorite flower of the migratory monarch) in “Of What Next,” planted in the faith that what she has buried will one day “call over / butterflies” (16), a crop of brilliant homecomings alighting at journey’s end.
If Gee’s book grapples with a poetics of excavation by rooting, a burrowing into the earth in search of blood and filament with which to anchor the diasporic body, then Singaporean-French-American poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s latest collection, The Ruined Elegance(Princeton, 2015), can be said to point its gaze skyward, engaging in a magpie-like poetics of investigation by assemblage, a searching for new meanings and identities under the vast, universal canopy that hangs above the ruins of language, of history, of justice, of place and identity. The poems in Sze-Lorrain’s collection comprise a deftly curated gallery that takes on images of trauma and war (from a survivor’s account of Ravensbruck to scenes from the Cultural Revolution and from apparently contemporary political prison camps) by overlaying and skillfully collaging them together with ideas and images borrowed from European and Asian cultural touchstones. From the classical musical form of the partita (though not one of Bach’s, the poet is careful to note) to Magritte’s iconic The Son of Man to Joseon brush paintings and translated text borrowed from Chinese poets Zhang Zao and Gu Cheng, Sze-Lorrain carefully builds up layers of meaning and beauty around the rubble of written texts and oral narratives that have been erased by the violence of totalitarianism, the fickleness of memory, and the existential complexity of diasporic identity. She allows the ruins to become a kind of aesthetic in themselves, taking the absences as a kind of new form—startling and intentionally unbeautiful among the threads of the shimmering fabric that she weaves about and beneath them, stitching them together as a practitioner of kintsugi, a Japanese technique in which a shattered vessel is repaired by inlaying gold into the veins created by the cracks and missing pieces, might construct a new type of pot out of something once broken. It is here, in the glinting interstices of these carefully rejoined pieces, that Sze-Lorrain’s migratory speaker makes her home: “I want to honor / the invisible,” she says (5), and later, to “turn this ruined thought / into a poem” (45).
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What books are on your summer reading list this year? We’d love to hear about them! Leave us a comment below or share your best recommendations with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
APIA Heritage Month has come and gone, and in its wake, I’m reminded more than ever of the current stakes for our community. It’s been a tumultuous last few months. Beginning in April, just after AWP and as LR was planning its collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum, a wave of painful incidents once again demonstrated the challenges of Asian American representation. It started when the New Yorker published Calvin Trillin’s racially tone-deaf poem about Chinese food, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” and continued with reports of yet more yellowface casting in Hollywood, a Facebook post by Mark Doty that made sport of the English on a Chinese restaurant’s menu, and, most recently, manifested itself on television, when Ann Coulter insisted that all Asian Americans ought to be referred to as “Mandarins.” With Michael Derrick Hudson’s engagement in literary yellowface in last year’s Best American Poetry and Chris Rock’s use of Asian American children as props at the Oscars still fresh in our memories, we couldn’t be blamed for feeling that lately, the assault has been relentless. Again and again, we’ve seen the Asian American body become yet another object on which others have imposed their own narratives of fear and foreignness. Repeatedly, we’ve found ourselves fighting for the right to own our bodies and the cultural narratives that they inhabit. Throughout all of this, we’ve witnessed the beauty and strength of a community rising up to make itself heard, but we’ve also wrestled with the reality of watching those who’ve spoken out be continually dismissed and silenced.
After Calvin Trillin’s poem was published, Asian American writers all over the nation responded en masse, making their criticisms known on Twitter and Facebook, writing letters to the New Yorker, crafting response poems and parodies (many of which the AAWW later documented in this helpful post at the Margins), publishing critical essays (e.g. Timothy Yu’s prescient essay in the New Republic, Paula Young Lee’s incisive article for Slate, Wendy Chin-Tanner’s thoughtful piece at XO Jane, and Neil Aitken’s analysis for the podcast Racist Sandwich’s blog), and giving interviews on the radio (e.g. Hyphen editor Karissa Chen’s appearance on the Heritage Radio Network show, Eat Your Words). The public backlash to these responses was swift and unmerciful. The Huffington Post published a blog post positing that anger was an inappropriate, even unfair, response because of Trillin’s age. Joyce Carol Oates tweeted a ditty that described Trillin as “misunderstood.” Yu, Chen, and countless others who spoke up were harrassed by strangers on social media who characterized them as hysterical, berated their “oversensitivity,” and called their credentials into question. The message, it appeared, was that Asian Americans’ right to speak about our own cultures and experiences, to tell our own stories on our own terms, did not matter—at least, not as much as protecting the right of a white man with considerable privilege and status to speak for us (even if at our expense).
The public hostility toward those who dared to question Trillin’s poem was clearly symptomatic of the more general failure to acknowledge the nuances of problematic racial discourse in our country, as well as of the ways in which the voices of people of color are constantly “talked over” by white people in positions of relative power. But Calvin Trillin was not the only party to blame. The editors of the New Yorker failed just as much in their roles as literary gatekeepers: first, when they decided to publish Trillin’s poem, and again, when they declined to address readers’ concerns about its appearance in the magazine. As I watched the bitter aftermath of the incident unfold before me on LR’s social media feeds, I was reminded of something that Barbara Jane Reyes had observed during our reading at the Bookbinders Museum in reference to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. The question at the heart of the matter for both Cha and Asian American voices today, Reyes said, is always this: Who gets to speak for us? Who gets to tell our stories?
Publishing’s Diversity Problem
The Trillin incident and others of a similar bent have served to highlight one of the most pressing issues in the contemporary publishing industry: in this country, the people who make decisions about whose work gets published, the people who are responsible for selling books, and the people who review books—essentially, those who serve as the gatekeepers for what literature gets read and how works are received and consumed by the public—are an overwhelmingly homogeneous group. According to a recent survey of the publishing industry by Lee and Low, 86% of publishing executives across the industry are white, as are 82% of editorial staff and 89% of book reviewers. Is it any wonder that, even as the demographics of the US population shift toward greater and greater racial diversity, the face of published literature in our country has remained eerily static, and the mainstream publishing industry has found itself ill equipped (or even seemingly disinclined) to adequately represent diverse literary voices?
Where Do We Go from Here?
It’s clear to us here at LR that there is great hunger and need within our community. We heard several pressing concerns repeatedly expressed at the Asian American caucus at AWP: How do we build safe, alternative spaces for our communities and for our work? How do we get publishers to pay attention to our writing? How do we build understanding of and appreciation for the value of storytelling, literature, and art within our communities and families? How can we assist students who face lack of institutional support within their programs? How do we ensure that the people who do the work of standard-bearing and gatekeeping in our communities receive credit and compensation for their work, and how do we make sure that we do not allow them to burn out?
We have a tall order set before us. So where can we begin? Here are just a few thoughts.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we interviewed leading scholar and poet Timothy Yu, author of 100 Chinese Silences (Les Figues Press, 2015), Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford, 2009), and the three chapbooks 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish Press, 2012), Journey to the West (Barrow Street, 2006), and Kiss the Stranger (Corollary Press, 2012). Yu is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he spoke with us, among other things, about the need for greater historical contextualization of Asian American poetry, the process of writing 100 Chinese Silences, and the vibrant relationship between his creative and scholarly work.
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LANTERN REVIEW: Within the literary and academic world, you function in a variety of roles. What’s it like to wear so many different hats? We’re especially curious about the ways in which these roles (poet, cultural critic, scholar, teacher, editor, etc.) overlap, or if there are times when you find them in tension with one another.
TIMOTHY YU: I’ve always written poetry, but for a long time my identity as a poet was peripheral to my professional identity as a scholar. I did a PhD in literature, not an MFA, and until pretty recently I never really published much of my poetry. There’s a lot I could say about this, but I think that it was my scholarly training, and in particular my study of Asian American poetry, that gave me a greater sense of confidence in my work, and ultimately a clearer sense of what I wanted my poetry to do.
But it was definitely a struggle along the way sometimes. In grad school, although quite a few of my classmates were also creative writers, there was an old-school sense among faculty that being a creative writer was not compatible with the “serious” identity of scholar. I kept my poetry going largely by finding a community outside of the university—I went to readings, joined a writing group, sometimes took creative writing workshops elsewhere during the summers.
It’s really only in the past few years that my roles as poet and scholar/critic have begun to converge. A lot of that has to do with my finding a community of other Asian American poets through Kundiman. Although I had studied Asian American poetry for some years, I don’t think I began to see myself as an Asian American poet until I became a Kundiman fellow and saw what being part of an Asian American literary community could mean. I think this understanding has allowed my scholarly work increasingly to feed my creative work, which is basically what led to 100 Chinese Silences.
Now I think I’m experiencing this wonderful feedback loop where my creative work is also pushing my criticism to new places. Probably the best example of this was in the controversy around Calvin Trillin’s poem in the New Yorker, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” My response was both creative and critical: I wrote a parody of Trillin’s poem that was published on Angry Asian Man, which led to me getting interviewed on NPR, which was followed by my being asked to write an essay for the New Republic. And in that piece, I tried to combine my scholarly knowledge with the emotion I was feeling as a member of the Asian American poetry community—which I think made all the difference to its success.
LR: You’re the author of the chapbook 15 Chinese Silences, which was published in 2012. Four years and eighty-five Chinese silences later, the book-length 100 Chinese Silences is in print. Can you tell us a bit about how this project evolved? How did it find its trajectory?
TY: The Chinese Silences began when Billy Collins came to Madison to do a reading. There were something like 1,200 people there! Anyway, Collins read a poem called “Grave,” in which he is standing at the graves of his parents, and he says that his father’s silence was like “the one hundred different kinds of silence according to the Chinese belief.” Now, I’m not an expert on all things Chinese, but that didn’t sound familiar to me. And then at the end of the poem, Collins admits that the idea of 100 Chinese silences was something he had “just made up.” In my annoyance, I immediately vowed that I would write these 100 Chinese silences, although at the time I didn’t know what I meant by that.
I started off by simply writing a parody of “Grave,” one that tried to turn the idea of “Chinese silence” on its head. I quickly discovered that Collins had, in fact, written a lot of poems about China (or Asia), and so I continued by parodying those poems. Collins provided me with more than enough material for the first fifteen poems in the series, which became the Tinfish chapbook 15 Chinese Silences.
I soon realized that the project, which had started off as a bit of a lark, was leading me into deeper waters, and that to explore them, I was going to need to move beyond Collins toward a broader investigation of how China and Asia are portrayed in contemporary American poetry and culture. It turned out that there were many more poems than I expected, by a wide range of poets; some I just found by doing things like searching the Poetry magazine archives for “China.” The poems I found ranged from elegant invocations of Chinese poetry to cringingly offensive uses of stereotype and pidgin. After a certain point, people actually started sending me examples—“here’s a good one for you!”—and so I pretty much had an inexhaustible supply of material.
Of course, the tradition of poetic orientalism I’m exploring isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon; it goes at least back to the dawn of the 20th century and modernism, so at a certain point, I had to begin delving back into that earlier tradition. I did this a bit tentatively at first, starting with a parody of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” (No. 38) and eventually reaching back to modernism: Marianne Moore, W.B. Yeats, and, of course, Ezra Pound, whose poetry is the subject of the final dozen or so poems.
So, the sequence unfolds pretty much in the order it was written, but that order does represent a fairly conscious movement from contemporary poems about Chinese stuff back to the modernist roots of American poetic orientalism.
LR: Given the book’s wide variety of source material, how did your creative process differ with poems responding to, say, Collins and Tony Hoagland (living, contemporary poets), as opposed to Marianne Moore and Pound (deceased, “canonical” voices)? Or did it? What about your responses to more journalistic sources, such as the speech by Newt Gingrich or David Sedaris’s piece on China?
TY: Rewriting Moore and Pound was certainly more intimidating than rewriting Collins or Hoagland! For the more contemporary writers, my tone sometimes bordered on the snarky. But of course, there was some element of reverence in my approach to figures like Moore and Pound, even as I was trying to mount a critique of their work. It’s probably why I put off grappling with them until much later in the series, when I felt I had more confidence in what I was doing.
Responding to some of the journalistic sources was actually fun, because those were the places in the series where I had a bit more freedom. Much of the series was written under fairly strong constraint; I strove to mirror the style and even the line structure of the originals. But with something like the response to Sedaris, I was able to play around more freely with the grotesque imagery of disgust Sedaris uses in his description of China. The most fun piece in this regard was No. 26, which collaged reporting on Wendi Deng (the then-wife of Rupert Murdoch, who made headlines by slapping down a protester who tried to hit Murdoch with a pie) to the tune of Blake’s “The Tyger.”
LR: How have audiences responded to 100 Chinese Silences?
TY: People seem to like and respond to these poems more than anything I’ve ever written—which of course I have mixed feelings about, since nearly all of them are rewritings of other poets’ work! But I think that is part of the project—trying to use the pleasure and humor of these parodies as a Trojan horse for a certain kind of critique.
I’ve been very gratified by the way that Asian American readers, in particular, have responded to the work—they’ve really embraced it warmly as a way of talking back to a certain tradition, which has been so important to my being able to complete it. I’ve heard a little skepticism from some readers about the way I take on certain poets, Pound in particular, who are not as easy targets as, say, Collins. I certainly think that the poems where I’m rewriting canonical writers are the riskiest and the most open to ambivalent interpretation.
LR: As a literary journal dedicated to the promotion and publication of Asian American poetry, Lantern Review has thought quite a bit about what it means to be an advocate for change in today’s literary climate. In your opinion, what is the most pressing cultural work that needs to be done right now?
TY: I think there is a growing awareness that the voices of people of color need to be heard, and indeed, need to be front and center, in contemporary culture, but there is also awareness of how far we are from having the kind of cultural discourse where that is the case. I think it’s absolutely vital for Asian American writers and other writers of color to continue to build their own spaces—whether that’s publications like Lantern Review or organizations like Kundiman—while also demanding more mainstream representation; the two are not mutually exclusive but go hand in hand. I also think it’s crucial for us to provide a greater sense of the history of racial discourse; the conversations and conflicts we’re having today are not new, but emerge from long histories and deep contexts. This is where I think scholars/critics and poets absolutely must be talking to and learning from each other. Simply having a sense that there is an Asian American literary tradition is an incredible boon to a young Asian American writer.
LR: What are some of the most exciting things happening in Asian American poetry today? What are you currently reading?
TY: The breadth and depth of what’s happening in Asian American poetry is just astonishing. To me, Asian American poetry is a space where the lyrical, the experimental, the performative, the political—things too often separated in the larger poetry world—can engage and infuse each other. Just looking at my nightstand, I see amazing new and recent books by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Brandon Shimoda, Khaty Xiong, Nicholas Wong; books by international Asian writers like Sarah Howe and Fred Wah. And the wider world is taking notice.
LR: After 100 Chinese Silences, what’s next? Can you tell us about any new projects currently underway?
TY: I’m working on a new sequence called Chinese Dreams, and yes, it’s another rewriting—this time of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. I’m fascinated and deeply troubled by Berryman’s framing of his anguished personal lyrics through racially stereotyped language, and I’ve been trying to see what I can do with that from an Asian American perspective.
Over the course of this National Poetry Month, we’ve been curating a conversation about Asian American poetry and the book as object. If you’ve been following along with our collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum these past couple of weeks, you’ll also have noticed our thematic emphasis on the chapbook and its unique relationship to the print traditions of poetry as a genre. Today, in continuation of that discussion, we’re pleased to be able to present a conversation with poet-scholars and two-time chapbook authors Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee. Chen, the author of Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire(Porkbelly Press, 2015), and Rhee, the author of Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love(Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Yellow(Tinfish Press, 2011), spoke to us about the delights and challenges of the chapbook as a form and shared some of their experiences from the process of shaping and finding publishing homes for their chaps.
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LR: What appeals to you about the chapbook as a form, as distinct from the more traditional format of the full-length poetry collection?
CC: I love that you can read a chapbook in one sitting. I mean, I do that with full-length collections I love, but a chapbook feels like such a good, healthy portion of poetry. You have just enough energy to devour it properly.
I love working with small presses. And I’ve been so lucky. Porkbelly Press did my first chapbook, and I remember giving the editor, Nicci Mechler, all these different ideas for cover art (maybe a train? a moon? a single flower? multiple flowers but not too many?)—and she just knocked it out of the park. I think that’s the first time I’ve said “knocked it out of the park.” Well, written it. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud. I would say it out loud for Nicci Mechler and Porkbelly Press. Those cleavers. That perfect purple. Two of Cups Press did my second chapbook, and we were able to use Lizzy DuQuette’s fabulous image for the cover. I’ve felt so listened to, cared for, by these presses. At AWP this year, Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, the editor at Two of Cups, organized chapbook signings for her authors and a last-minute-but-really-fun joint reading in her hotel room. With both chapbooks, we ran into formatting issues (my lines just got too long!)—both times, the editors knocked it out of the park.
MR: I love the ephemeral nature of chapbooks, how artistic the chapbooks can be, and the possibilities of risk (as poet, as publisher) within the chapbook form.
Moreover I like how chapbooks are not tied to the capitalistic market (as limited as it is for po-biz); there’s something pure about them. This kind of poetry isn’t really about money.
In addition to editing my first chapbook, Susan graciously wrote a blurb for my second chapbook, which also speaks to the generative relationships when working with an editor on a chapbook of poetry. I learned tremendously from Susan and count her as a formative mentor. A precious gift.
LR: Each of your chapbooks has a unique project or conceit that shapes and informs it. Can you describe for us how these projects came about?
CC: For Set the Garden on Fire, I was interested in the child’s voice, the queer child’s voice, the voice of a child of immigrants. So a lot of the poems in this first chapbook wrestle with childhood, early adolescence, and engage coming of age in this very intersectional way. Companion poems like “Write a Letter to the Class About Your Summer Vacation” and “Write a Letter to Your Mother About Your Longest Winter” helped structure the collection—echo and break, circularity as well as surprise, I hope. Flowers and fires, yes, but donuts also play an important role. The chapbook is full of questions about what tenderness means and what kinship or community could look like.
Kissing the Sphinx is much less autobiographical. Or less directly so. I think of it as my chapbook of wacky love poems. There’s a hot air balloon and fuchsia snow pants. There’s Eros and Mariah Carey. One of the speakers makes a trip from Helsinki to Shanghai that I’ve never made. I had to Google how many hours that flight is. The loose arc of the collection goes from early (attempts at) dating to this (attempt at a) more serious relationship. The chapbook wonders, what is “serious” and what is a “relationship”? There is also Tom Daley and a Russian driving instructor.
Yellow was a poetic investigation of . . . [questions] around meaning and difference. But it was also an experiment on poetic form and how formal qualities shape “the racial” and color. The title poem, “Yellow,” was my first conscious attempt to fuse the two (formal + racial) and signaled a turn for my relationship with poetry. . . . [At the time of writing Yellow,] I was inspired by French avant-garde poets of the 1960s such as the Oulipo and Stephane Mallarme, but I was also responding to avant-garde poetry and the privilege of racial omission when utilizing color in poetry, for example. With the exception of “Body Maps,” the poems in the collection were all written within a span of six months and with experimentation as a key focus of writing during that time.
The chapbook is a section of a poetry manuscript I am completing, tentatively entitled “I Love Juana” and Other Poemas, a collection on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, and protest.
Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love came about via various research I was doing on robots and culture for my PhD work at UC Berkeley. At the time, I found that poetry-writing about robots was an interesting way to engage and question demarcations of difference through the science fictional. It was also a reprieve from the scholarly research. In every sense, the robot love relations in Radio Heart are queer relations, but not explicitly so. It was refreshing to take a different turn from my previous writing, which deals pretty centrally with issues of difference (race, class, sexuality) and to explore how science fiction poetry can ask questions on difference, but through worldbuilding. However, I still write explicitly political poetry (Yellow is a section of a poetry manuscript [as mentioned above] I am completing on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, protest); it’s simply part of my orientation and practice, I realize—activism that seeps through into the poetic. But I also turn to science fiction as a way to worldbuild other possibilities. My next book is about space exploration and Mars.
LR: While writing each of your chaps, how did you go about deciding which poems belonged in the manuscript? Were there any poems that didn’t make the cut?
CC: The page limit that each press provides in their submission guidelines was very helpful. It seems the typical chapbook is between twenty and thirty pages. I like this. It makes the cuts easier for me, because I can just blame the press’s page limit. Sorry, poem about two male astronauts having a homoerotic moment right before getting blasted into space—it’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the page limit. A bit more seriously, though: I consider which emotional notes have been hit and whether I’ve been banging one gong a bit too frequently. I think: the gong of sadness over a breakup has been hit. Or: the gong of being silly about homoeroticism has been hit. I want to keep the psychological or narrative arc of the collection clear and tight.
MR: All the poems in the original manuscript made the cut, but I would add, I have a section entitled “Radio Heart” that contains four-line poems. The section was inspired by the work of Descartes on the body (Discourse on Method). I decided to leave the poems on separate pages in the chapbook, but in the larger book manuscript, they are all placed on one page, as one poem.
LR: Of the poems that appear in your chaps, is there one of which you’re most proud? We’d love to hear its story if you’d care to share it.
CC: I’m pretty fond of “Race to the Tree” from Set the Garden on Fire. This fondness came after deep frustration. This poem took forever. I started it in college. Then I couldn’t look at it for a couple years. In the second year of my MFA, I looked at it again. Bruce Smith, one of my brilliant teachers at Syracuse, was teaching us about the ballad form. Something clicked. Or not really “clicked,” because the poem isn’t in ballad form. But something about quatrains and a dark night and a song that is also a narrative and then the three sections . . . it took me a long time to think of the poem in such formal terms. The emotions in the poem were/are so volatile. The night I sort of accidentally came out to my parents. The night of the argument that would push me back into the closet. The night I thought I would run away and never return. The night I saw my parents as strangers (and I’m sure they saw me that way, too). So. Then. Writing, rewriting. I revised it again when it went into my MFA thesis. When it went into the chapbook. Now the poem’s in my full-length book. I’m pretty sure it’s done, now. But when I say, at the end of the poem, “I was 13, I am 13, it is/night”—every time I read that aloud, it’s true.
MR: This is a great question! I’m pretty proud of “Beam, Robot.” It was originally published in Hyphen magazine’s literary section that is edited by Karissa Chen. Karissa is a fantastic editor, and she had some really wonderful words of advice on how to enliven and tighten the poem’s language and world. When I was interviewed on the poem for the magazine, it helped me reflect on the project as a whole. It is a rare opportunity to work so closely on a poem with an amazing editor like Karissa, and I’m really glad about how it came out.
LR: Figuring out how to navigate the publishing world can be a notoriously difficult process for emerging poets of color. Can you tell us about the decision process that went into choosing the publisher for each of your chapbooks? Do you have any advice for Asian American poets who are hoping to find the right home for a first chapbook manuscript?
CC: I’ve answered this one a bit with the first question. But yes. The right homes. The editors who will listen and care and listen. My advice to Asian American poets wanting to publish a chapbook: check to see if the press has published any Asian American poets before. More than one? Look at the submission guidelines. Are the editors explicit about seeking and supporting work by writers of color, queer writers, queer writers of color? Do they use this language? Are they explicit about being feminist, antiracist? What is the exact language of the guidelines page or the call for submissions or the “about” page? For example, Porkbelly Press describes itself as such: “We’re a queer-friendly, feminist press open to all, and encourage works from authors all along the identity spectrum.” And: ask folks who have worked with that press before. Their experiences.
Also, the design and production quality matter. The cover art matters. Not while you’re writing, of course. But while you’re deciding where to send the writing out. If you can, obtain a chapbook from a press you’re considering (and sometimes, the submission fee is a chapbook purchase because the press wants you to be familiar with what they do). Hold the physical object in your hands. Turn the pages. Is it a beautiful thing? Is it an artifact you want in your hands, your home? Is it a home for poems? Could you see yourself with a chapbook like that, reading from it, to an audience, one lovely day?
MR: With Yellow, I was lucky because my friend (and my formative mentor) Craig Santos Perez recommended me to Susan Schultz as a potential poet for her new series. It turned out to be the best home for Yellow, given Susan’s commitment to experimental poetics, Korean American poetics, and poetics of the Pacific. With Finishing Line Press, I submitted in part because I loved their chapbooks and the attention they give to women’s poetry. I am thinking especially of [LR editor] Iris A. Law’s chapbook Periodicity (which I taught and reviewed) and Karen McPherson’s Sketching Elise. Both are wondrous chapbooks.
For emerging poets of color and Asian American poets, I would recommend seeking out a publisher with a sensibility you feel kin to. This may mean seeking out chapbooks you love and checking out who published those collections, and submitting accordingly. Ultimately, you want an apt home that can take care of your poems.
I just received the second printing of Radio Heart, and it’s been interesting to think about the myriad of approaches to chapbook publishing. My publisher made some changes to the second version, and it feels more like a book. But in many ways, I miss the first version of Radio Heart, the staples (the second printing is perfect bound), the colored vellum (the second printing has a new image of the publisher’s logo), and the paper (the second printing is glossy). The second printing feels more like a book, while the first printing really feels like a chapbook (more porous in its paper materials and ephemeral in its staples).
I am getting used to this second version, but the first edition will always be dear to me, most certainly for the same reasons I love poetry chapbooks (as opposed to full-length books).
My friend the amazing poet Neil Aitken consoled me in saying that the second version just makes the first version more special. I will heed his expertise, as it makes me realize the experience of chapbooks: how limited they are, but also how special.
LR: You’re both academics as well as poets [Rhee is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon; Chen is an English and creative writing PhD candidate at Texas Tech University]. In what ways has your critical scholarship informed your creative work? How do you balance your scholarly pursuits with the labor that it takes to promote, sell, and market your chaps and other published creative work?
CC: I’ll start with the second question . . . when I first joined Twitter, I almost broke down and sobbed, I was so overwhelmed. Information overload. And although it was the reason I made a Twitter account, I just hated being self-promotional. Which, now, I understand is a necessary part of being an author, especially now, especially as a poet. I don’t have an agent or a publicist. Editors and presses help. But folks seem most interested in reading and/or buying my work if I’m the one telling them about it. I mean. I want to share the work. I want the work to do things in the world. I want the work to be useful, in some way, to someone. Still, the publishing author is different from the writing poet. I don’t know that I’ve balanced it, yet. Or maybe each day is a different attempt at balancing, some more successful than others. The poet Scott Woods made a beautiful and important post on Facebook the other week, basically insisting that you should “put your book on the table” at readings and other events. Take some healthy pride in this work you’ve made. Join the literary conversation, which is certainly happening on Twitter, as well.
My scholarly work focuses on contemporary US poets of color. Recently, I’ve written essays about Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Robert Hayden, Nikky Finney, and Aracelis Girmay. These essays need more work before I can seriously consider sending any of them out. I’m interested in notions of the transnational and the planetary, transgressive conceptions (and enactments!) of space, and large scales of time that challenge me to see strange connections between poets and poetries (poetics and ethics, as well . . . ). When Finney excavates a prehistoric space in one of her poems, I follow and try to read the prehistory within the history, within the now. When Girmay suggests that the donkey is closer to “us” than we might first believe, I try to believe and read the donkey in how poets speak and sing and what this donkey song has to do with justice and grief. The poems I’m writing now are grappling with grief, are grieving—my partner’s mother passed away from cancer last fall—and asking questions about education or learning. What does the university provide? What does the university police? What other “schools” do I need to explore? Is there a “school” in prehistoric aliveness, a “school” in donkey song that I need to enroll in?
MR: Throughout graduate school, it wasn’t really hard to balance poetry and scholarship, because it all seemed to be part of the same practice: questioning, investigating, writing . . . looking back, I think it wasn’t challenging to balance both because I didn’t actively seek publication for my poetry. It really remained a practice, and I simply published when I was invited to submit and very occasionally sent out work (perhaps once every three months or so). I did very limited publicizing for Yellow, and ironically, because of my scholarship, I was at a critical theory seminar at the University of Hawai’i that summer the chapbook was published (which is where Tinfish is based), and so it was poetic kismet in a way. I was able to have a “launch reading” in Hawai’i, with Craig, Susan, and others, because of the scholarly training I was engaging in at the time.
I guess though, now that I am out of graduate school, and teaching a full load—time, my time, feels much more limited. Two years ago, I was also given some formative advice from a cherished mentor to send out my work more often. I waited a few years between Yellow (2011) and Radio Heart (2015) and upon my mentor’s advice took more time to send out work, which is how Radio Heart came about.
I would say helping promote Radio Heart has taken more time in terms of interviews and other kinds of publicity and readings. I am grateful, because like this interview, it is a generative process. But the work of promoting and submitting is such a different animal than writing. I really prefer the latter rather than the former.
LR: One of the things that we love to do at Lantern Review is to continually highlight new work for our readers. What are a few of your own favorite chapbooks by APIA writers that you would recommend?
MR: I second Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary. Neil Aitken’s Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl, 2016). [Also,] not APIA, but pretty fabulous and we have a Salvi-Kore connection, and I love her chapbooks: Raquel Gutiérrez, Breaking up with Los Angeles (Econo Textual Objects, 2014).
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Chen Chen is the author of two chapbooks, Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015). His full-length collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was selected by Jericho Brown for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and will be published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in spring 2017. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.
Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooksYellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) andRadio Heart; or How Robots Fall out of Love(Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her literary fellowships include Kundiman, Squaw Valley, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship. She holds a PhD in ethnic and new media studies from UC Berkeley and teaches in women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.
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[Editors’ Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Susan Schultz’s name and, at Margaret Rhee’s request, to clarify Craig Santos Perez’s role as her mentor as well as a friend.]