Review: Feng Sun Chen’s BUTCHER’S TREE

Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen | Black Ocean 2012 | $14.95

MULDER: When Victor Frankenstein asks himself, “Whence did the principle of life proceed?” and then as a gratifying summit to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the Postmodern Prometheus: the genetic engineer whose power to reanimate matter (genes) into life (us) is only as limited as his imagination is.
—The X-Files Episode 5×06, “Post-Modern Prometheus

BUTCHER'S TREE
BUTCHER’S TREE

Emptied peanut butter jars are evidence of The Great Mutato’s presence in The X-Files episode “Post-Modern Prometheus.” A rejected genetic creation of Frankenstein-like scientist Dr. Pollidori, The Great Mutato’s deformities banish him to a dark cellar, where he eats peanut butter sandwiches and hungers for human connection. Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree excavates the cavities in which such mythic, hybrid and feral figures as The Great Mutato, Prometheus, Wukong and Grendel dwell and, by placing a mouth to the opening, “eat[s them] up from the inside” (5).

Chen writes of feral creatures that are “[p]eeled from living rock” (65), birthed from stone, petri dish or sea, whether genetically engineered or spiritually divined; that share a certain “fall from grace;” and whose bodies (or whose power to create living forms) usurp the dominion of the immortal. As such they blur the lines between “god” and “man,” and as myths are imagined to possess monstrous shells, scales and hideous skins, but no souls. They are imagined as cavities, or as caves. In these hollowed spaces, creatures (the created) fill the emptiness with hunger. Chen writes, “[s]ilence, which is not additive, / can be filled with anything” (58). This hollowness is completely full of “everything that waiting breeds” (49), like the “trigger of longing” (44) and “alive loneliness” (32). In these cavities, “hearts [grow] teeth” (4).

A series of poems centers on Wukong, a shape-shifting Monkey King born from stone and the main character in the novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Chen writes that “he felt like a salmon inside a bear” and that “[e]ven in his dreams it was something else that moved / through him”—”[s]omething watched himself dream” (17). The nodes or root beings of Chen’s Butcher’s Tree share the desire to be inside something else, or are outside watching themselves—”When the soul steps from the body // and watches the body / and the body is flayed” (7). They are beings through which other energies move, and are constantly rearranged by grammar and outer skins. In all their hunger, they wish for “the world to pass through [them]” (91), but what they eat is not often easily digested, or easily let go.

When [Wukong] looked at the girl with transparent flippers, he knew that if he looked at her underneath side, he would be able to hear a sound of the wind leaving, or water falling. It would be salty. It would be alive. It would contain a creature with a heart that used no arteries or veins but whose blood bathed its organs in a single cavity. He thought of doors as smacking, windows as puckering. Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea. (18)

Chen’s image of rooted trees or fish bones, with their fern-like accumulation of branches and spines, speaks to a mathematical yet organic pattern. Of all possible reconstructions, Chen invites the reader to reconstruct the body out of “hall[s] of tongues, corridor[s] of knees […] some with just the scalp” (15). In so doing, we question origin. What is birth, really? To be hatched. Chen’s writing is a poetics of mutation and molecular gestation, of cell membranes and excretions, replicating in all cavities of the body. We come to ask, is the generative force of life hunger? And we learn how hunger itself reconstructs the body, how hunger becomes grammar.

But Grendel was hungry. He was hungrier than all the rest. His hunger

made his body magnetic with the rhetoric of hollowness:
Little tiny spikes, little tiny scrapes, rippling with tiny implosions. (66)

In the book’s final section, Chen gorgeously and wrenchingly re-imagines the creature Grendel from Beowulf, not as half man or beast, but as a woman—a trans/gender body. Grendel hungers until all he/she/sie is is hunger, until the body reconstitutes. “[T]his liplessness opened further into the labyrinth” (79), “two silences traveled and made interference waves” (82) and his/her/hir “beautiful beautiful body felt a massive echo” (98). Through each page, each abrupt insertion or amputation or aborted negative space, Chen’s Grendel surprises us with “new splatter” (82), touching us like “a pinprick of sand / within rounded numbness” (81).

Chen’s creatures are here flayed out, “woven into a delicate verge” (60). Take this book and “tuck it in a pocket. / Feel it all day, like a new organ” (41).

Editors’ Corner: On the Practice of Ordering Things (A Reflection)

Issue 6 poems up on the wall, ready to be "ordered."
Issue 6 poems up on the wall, ready to be “ordered” during editorial meeting.

As the days have begun to grow shorter and colder, I’ve found myself delving more and more into “housekeeping” mode. Perhaps the barrage of commercial hoopla heralding the distant holiday season is partly to blame (astoundingly, the “seasonal” marketing seems to have started in September this year), but there is also something about the circumstances inherent in this particular change of seasons that seems to have kept me in a constant state of culling and curating, collecting and planning. This month, I’ve found myself flipping my closet; ruthlessly meal-planning to accommodate busy weeknights; moving and arranging furniture (I’ve just moved into a new office space at work); plotting out a steady stream of gifts (baby gifts, wedding gifts, Christmas gifts); and in the midst of it all—editing poetry.

These past couple of weeks, Mia and I have been hard at work puzzling out the order in which the poems in Issue 6 will appear. “Ordering” the poems in an issue is often one of the toughest parts of the editorial process for us, but it’s also one of the most significant (and the most rewarding!). It’s the first time in the process when an issue begins to take on a rough shape, and it’s this shape that serves as a guide for us as we develop and implement the visual elements of the issue (decisions about layout, typesetting, etc.) during the production process. When we think about ordering an issue, we consider not just the overall “arc” (with respect to things like theme, sonics, pacing), but also how each poem will speak to the poems on either side of it. Some poems automatically suggest points of entry, or finality, while others can help to build the energy of a sequence, or to create needed moments of breath or pause.  We’re aware, of course, that as we are an online literary magazine, most people who encounter us are probably not in the habit of reading a given issue straight through (such is the nature of the internet, in which content is infinitely compartmentalize-able). But it is still important to us that there be a type of logic to how each issue is arranged—a sort of underlying lyric argument, if you will—to delight the reader who does choose to start at the front matter and read straight through.

Every time we finish ordering an issue, it feels like a red-letter occasion. I feel as if we’ve been given our first glimpse of a baby via ultrasound: the issue has begun to grown limbs; soon we will be able to see its tiny fingers and toes. Something about the outcome of the process feels life-giving, sustaining. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from experimenting with different arrangements, from asking how different configurations of the pieces in front of us might communicate differently as a whole, depending how they are arranged. Perhaps it’s partly my obsessive nature speaking (I am, after all, the kind of person who does not like the salad to touch the rice on her plate), but I think there is also something to be said for the benefit of this process of ordering, of arrangement—essentially, the act of editing—as a discipline for myself as an artist, as well.  In stepping back from the work before us and considering how it operates in a greater context, I’m forced to think outside of myself and my own experience of any particular piece. I’m forced to think about the argument of the work we are presenting as a body, to craft an experience for the reader that is not only enjoyable and surprising, but also strategic in its emphasis. Do we want to place this very short poem between these two much-longer pieces? Perhaps yes, if there is enough of a sense of space in the short poem to create a needed pause or breath—but then again, perhaps not, if the shorter poem will be unfairly dwarfed by the longer pieces on either side of it. Do we want the reader to enter the issue in medias reswith a poem that provides the feeling of being invited along on a journey that’s already in progress? Or will the overall arc of the issue be better served by an entry poem that can serve as a sort of prologue for the trajectory of the work to come? If we place these two poems next to one another, do we risk the reader misunderstanding the first line of the latter because of the way that the former ends? If we don’t keep this group of poems in the order in which they came to us, are we violating the author’s intended sense of narrative? Or do we need to arrange these poems differently in order to create a more seamless transition between the group and the mood of the pieces that come before and after it?

In some sense, this type of conversation is not so different from the ongoing one that I, as a writer, must continually have with myself about my own work—whether on the level of the line, or on a more macro scale (at the level of a manuscript, or even at the level of archetype, or genre, or the critical fields of study with which my work is concerned). How do the elements that make up my body of work speak to one another, and how do they speak to the conversation that is already being held out there in the rest of the world? This is a set of questions that I must constantly ask myself if I am to remain engaged and grounded as an artist. Editing the work of others—and in particular, working on each new issue of LR—has simultaneously sharpened me as an editor of my own work. I’m a better artist for it, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me to challenge myself and to grow.

Panax Ginseng: A Crisis of Universal Utterance

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.

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photo of mug, poem, & smokes courtesy of Rachel Richardson

Photo of mug, poem, & smokes
Courtesy of Rachel Richardson

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The title here is taken from a phrase by Laura (Riding) Jackson, from one of her prose writings after she abjured a successful career in poetry. I’ve been contending personally with her claims against poetry since the publication of my first chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe Press 2012). Jackson makes the case for a language with intrinsic truth-value as a pure means of expression, free from sliding signifiers, free especially from the generic constraints of literary form. She argues that poetry is a medium for accepting the “good enough” under the illusion of a truth that is ultimately inexpressible. This illusion is consummated by the aesthetic gesture, providing, at best, a sense of formal completeness. Poetry, then, is a closed circuit, which never stretches outward to communicate truth or to connect truly through words. In her essay “What, If Not A Poem, Poems?” Jackson writes:

A poem emits something that delights, seeming truth-like. But one learns, at long poetic last, that the poem cannot yield truth itself, truth unqualified: it is too much committed to yielding the semblance to be capable of yielding the pure reality. This, it is hard for the poet to know, for, though the poet perceive that, here and there, truth did not get its full due, such perceptions would lose themselves in the growing satisfaction felt in the coming to be of that extraordinary thing, a poem.

To put this another way, when Yusef Komunyakaa was once asked what sentimentality was, he answered: “Passion without form.” Jackson wants to champion this passion and not the form. Let me rephrase this once more. Toi Derricotte has said that her writing process is the transmutation of an inner storm into an outer object—like a mug—which she can then place on the shelf. Again, the well-wrought form, its source in reality become a regardless matter. The poems I wrote for Paradise Hunger followed a series of family funerals, emerging from what I felt was a sacred process of grief, loneliness, and self-definition. The process came from a “crisis of universal utterance,” a groping in language toward some manner of truth, understanding, consummation. But what I ended up with instead was just a form, an object in my hands. An object for the shelf, yes, but also an object for sale, a suddenly profane thing.

Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: A Crisis of Universal Utterance”

A Conversation with Molly Gaudry

MOLLY GAUDRY
Molly Gaudry

Molly Gaudry is the author of the verse novel We Take Me Apart (Mud Luscious Press, 2010), which was named 2nd finalist for the 2011 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry and shortlisted for the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil. She is the creative director at the Lit Pub.

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LR: When did you start writing and how did you become a professional writer?

MG: I declared creative writing my major in high school—at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio—and graduated with a vocational degree. But I was always writing before that, making up little stories either in my head or putting them on paper. As for becoming a professional, I don’t know: does that come with your first publication (in my case, “The Bees,” in the now-defunct magical realism magazine Serendipity), or with your first book (We Take Me Apart, Mud Luscious Press), or does it start inside of you (I am a writer, I commit myself to this fully, I won’t quit until I have made it so)?

LR: We Take Me Apart stands at the intersection of poetry and prose, defying the conventions of either genre. Can you talk about the inception of the book and how you found its unique structure?

WE TAKE ME APART
WE TAKE ME APART

MG: It’s called a “novel(la)” on the cover, but that’s because it was the first of Mud Luscious’s “novel(la)” series. I’ve always called it a “verse novel” or a “novel in verse,” when explaining it to others: “It’s long like a novel, but each chapter looks like a poem.” I can’t say I was actively aware of subversion while I was writing it. I look at it now, after studying poetry for three years in the MFA program at George Mason University, and I can see how my line endings are somewhat subversive to more poetic line ending conventions, and I can see how having lines at all is subversive to prose conventions. But I wrote that book before the MFA, before any real poetry awareness. So really it was a fiction experiment. For me, a new way to tell a story, a different way to write a novel.

I realize something else now, too: I think that the form provided me with breathing room during a very claustrophobic time of my life. I had just left Cincinnati after graduating with an MA in fiction, and I was living in a room-for-rent in South Philly and teaching Pre-GED and GED courses in a halfway house for post-incarcerated men and women a few nights a week. It was depressing as hell. I felt confined to my room, and I felt confined in that jail, and I felt confined by my life. I didn’t know what next, where next, when next. The book’s form evolved throughout the drafting and editing stages, but in the end all that white space on every page probably gave me some peace, a place to breathe, to sigh.

LR: Although it had an indie publisher, We Take Me Apart received good deal of mainstream critical attention. What do you think this might say about the changing landscape of publishing?

MG: I’m going to cheat on this one and share a Q&A from an interview with Nicelle Davis at [PANK]. Nicelle asked: “How do you think the writing traditions of the past are manifesting themselves in the literary world today?” And my answer was (and still is): “When I see the phrase ‘writing traditions of the past,’ I think not of great literary movements but great literary partnerships (between writer, who dared, and publisher, who believed in that daring). This is the only tradition that matters. It is the one—not manifesting, but—being kept alive today, on an awesome and inspiring scale. And it is exciting.”

LR: What did you learn from the experience of publishing We Take Me Apart as far as the business end of producing a book? If you could travel back in time knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself before you first published?

MG: I think what I learned is how valuable it is to love your publisher, to trust in him (or her) wholeheartedly. This relationship is like a marriage—you are bare and vulnerable, utterly exposed. So do not enter into it lightly.

I was so lucky to have found J. A. Tyler. He championed the work from the start and signed on to publish it before ever seeing the first full draft. He believed in the promise of those early pages. He encouraged my creative process (even if it was maddening) and he actively and attentively read new pages every step of the way throughout the early and later drafts. He copy edited ruthlessly, lovingly, and midwifed the book into the world.

Love your publisher. Expect your publisher to love your work. Do not settle for anything less.

LR: In addition to poetry, you have also written a short fiction collection, Lost July, published in the 3-author volume Frequencies (YesYes Books). How does your process for writing fiction differ from your process for writing poetry?

MG: So in both cases (and actually in most cases for me), I write from word lists. We Take Me Apart began with jumbled words from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I pulled a word and wrote a line. The stories in Lost July began with a phrase-per-page from various zines—The Las Vegas Weekly, Washington City Paper, The Boston Phoenix, LA Weekly, etc.—and all of the zines were sent to me by friends from around the country. Although only eleven stories made it into the final manuscript, the project began as an idea to write thirty stories inspired by thirty city zines from the week of my thirtieth birthday.

LR: When you sit down to write, how does a poem come to you? What are you most aware of: story, image, or sound? How would you describe your writing style and what does it allow you to accomplish with your poems that other styles might not?

MG: I don’t like the blank page and actively avoid it. Word lists are a necessity. There may be other constraints I might like to try out in the future, but for now I love the intimacy of working with other writers’ words, reshaping them, reviving them into new forms. So, after the words themselves, which I choose quite selectively from selectively chosen books by selectively chosen authors, I’m probably most interested in finding the narrator’s voice—and quickly. If the words don’t get me to a voice I can love within the first 10 pages or so, the project usually stalls out and lands in my abandoned manuscripts pile. I don’t mind this, abandoning projects. It’s the voice that matters, that carries readers through a book. And maybe this is why I love the verse novel form—the narrator has an entire book length to live her life and tell her story, but she can do it any damn well way she pleases from page to page.

LR: Tell us a bit about the Lit Pub. What gave you the idea to start it and how does it work?

MG: Oh boy. Lit Pub started as something else entirely. That idea just wasn’t sustainable. Today, Lit Pub is a tiny little publishing company (we’ve published established authors like Aimee Bender and Miles Harvey, and we’re committed to publishing first books by emerging authors like Liz Scheid and Andrea Kneeland). We have a fancy website and we use it to recommend books you may or may not have already heard of.

LR: Having worked in both print and digital media, what are your thoughts on print versus online publishing? How do they differ? What are the pros and cons of each?

MG: It’s great to have a book in print. But just let everything else go free into the world, however or wherever it is released. There is no room in this business for elitism or snobbery. (This is my favorite thing to say, and I say it a lot: If the Buttcrack Review asked me for a poem, I’d send them three.) Release your writing into the world and let anyone who wants it (loves it) have it. Make sure you respect their work, their journal, the writers they’ve published (remember, it’s always a serious relationship), but just free yourself from the work and let it go home (to any home where it’s welcomed with open arms). Publications are cumulative. One leads to another and another and the next. I don’t like to think of print or online as majorly different things. It’s all just an editor on the other side, a publisher on the other side, and if you respect and admire them, and if they respect and admire you, what else matters?

LR: To what extent do you use social media professionally? Do you think it’s necessary for a poet’s success that they be active online?

MG: I used to be a lot more active on Facebook. Now I mostly just post pictures from my phone. But I like to check in every so often and see what others are up to, and I like to have it so I can find people and so people can find me and so we can keep some sort of connection alive.

I’m on Twitter, and although it’s more public than Facebook (because anyone can see it), I feel a lot more anonymous blurting things out into the Intersphere.

But these things come naturally to me. I like Facebook, and I like Twitter. I like connecting with people—commenting on their posts, sharing their good news, retweeting or replying to their funnyisms.

My advice is this: if you are a writer and you don’t like these things, don’t for the love of God try to fake it. You’ll hate it, it’ll take time away from your writing, and people will see right through your awkward, painful attempts. But if you are a great reader, be proactive and book yourself a tour! If you are a great organizer, plan an event! Whatever you like, find a way to make it work for you.

And most importantly: promote others. Share, comment on, retweet, plan an event for, write fan mail to, write a book review (or poem review or story review) for OTHER WRITERS! It’s not about you, it’s about the literary community and how to help it thrive. By celebrating others, you nurture the community that will in turn celebrate and nurture you.

LR: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

MG: In the spring, I began Ogie: A Ghost Story (the sequel to We Take Me Apart), and I finished the first draft at the end of July. I let it rest all of August. But now, with the new fall season upon us, I’m getting ready to go back into it and begin revising. Here’s a teaser:

she has gone so long without water her mouth skin is cracking

it has been too lonely for her in this house

I ask how she feels today and she says BELOW THE WEATHER and that she is IN NEED OF MEAT AND SEX

she tells me she had fourteen children

her husband and their seven sons and depending on if the last girl lived or died their six or seven daughters survived her in a city far away

she wonders if they thought of her often and admits that anymore she does not think of them that often

even her great-grandchildren have grown old and died

if I could I would find them and ask them here and hold them for her

because I am sinew and she is ancient as trees

Two Reviews: Hoa Nguyen’s AS LONG AS TREES LAST and Ji Yoon Lee’s IMMA

As Long As Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen | Wave Books 2012 | $16

AS LONG AS TREES LAST
AS LONG AS TREES LAST

Hoa Nguyen’s As Long As Trees Last is not a book for the city. Shouting concrete and signal siren screech, emit exhaust, make it difficult to “string and feel // wind of wing beats / in your face” (1). Take these poems into the grove and let the “trees be the church” (32). What you have reads like the diary of a hapa witch, a cross-section of all seasons. The shortness of line and breath in Nguyen’s work makes for ritual incantations in a forest clearing, for songs for invasive seeds.

Nguyen utilizes the Chinaberry tree, indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia but later introduced to the southern United States, to hint at a larger discussion around diaspora, transnational economies, transplants, and transracial intimacies. Born in the Mekong Delta, Nguyen has lived for some time in Texas. Of Thai ancestry, I was raised in West Virginia and Virginia. Like Nguyen, I am also a person of mixed race and understand the kind of odd resonance between the Southern states and Southeast Asia that occurs in the humidity, leafy foliage and rolling mountain ranges. The speakers in Nguyen’s poems often feel like invasive species with toxic fruit, growing wild with distant roots, endangered but tasked with “rag laundry day” and “beans on toast,” no stranger to the poetry that halts and swings from their throats.

I am interested in the contraction of line that works in Nguyen’s poetry, which is also apparent in the way her breath designates measure when she reads her work. Her short lines are fragmented by breath patterns, and the breakages are defined by elongated exhales and sharp inhales. Spaces between lines and phrases often expand abruptly and then contract, like a lung muscle.

Green bathroom floor
rug and the yellow mug
you loved      Cutting stop
Stop her there like a
yield color

[…]

We love are

We love are          folds
around the stripes of being

Can be

We can      We love
are slung nests

(from “Dirt-Under-Nails Dirt,” 7)

In the excerpt above, notice how “rug” and “mug” snugly bookend a line, yet how the line immediately following (“you loved       Cutting stop”) offers a break, a brief but scary expansion between “loved” and “Cutting,” and a “stop” to counter the preceding rhythm. Notice how “We love are” could be read as “We love our” and how the syntax breaks the relationship between verb and object. In the excerpt below, watch the turns between “pen,” “Open,” “born,” “Horn,” “gown,” “torn” and “train,” as well as the ones between “feathers,” “violet,” “insides,” “heart,” “held,” “cup” and “dark.”

So obvious    feathers on a heart pen
or beneath violet insides      Open
center when your heart is a
small baby born

Horn cup held inside and you wear
a gown with dark torn
a dark train
and starry yellow
flags for me     maybe also
summer cicadas

(from “So Obvious,” 12)

As Long As Trees Last writes the stubborn, sassy and slicing survival of a woman that listens to the rage and whisperings of the land—”My soil: alluvial / the fertile      where my mother birthed” (25). Nguyen examines the bottom of a pioneer’s foot and knows what it means to be two [verbs, languages, adjectives, emotions] at the same time. From “Adopted” to “Native” to “Thatch,” “Trust” and “Vine,” these are some “Words You Should Know” when learning about the binding contracts and rapid contractions caused by diaspora’s intimacy with our world.

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IMMA by Ji Yoon Lee | Radioactive Moat Press 2012 | Sold Out, Free Download Available

IMMA
IMMA

Ji Yoon Lee’s chapbook IMMA is an explosion. It’s a minefield of samples spitting up in your face. It’s your life on a weapons of mass destruction diet. It’s pissed off, cocked and ready to rock. If war wrecks language, then IMMA has been reloaded from the wreckage.

I first saw Lee perform at this year’s Delta Mouth Literary Festival at Louisiana State University. In one piece, she spoke in Korean through a tiny bullhorn that made her voice tinny and mechanical, while playing a recording of the text (put through Google Translate several times) read in English by a computerized voice. I was blown away by her strategies of translation and her efforts to make language strange, a tactic that she uses in IMMA. These poems are made of a mangy, mangled, “commingledlanguage” that is fused and unwilling to be pulled apart. Words merge and clump in the mouth, unapologetically yelling.

The United States’ historical participation in war in the Pacific theater, and all that comes with it (R&R, mail order brides), has shaped so much of what Asian/White and Asian/American intimacies have become and continue to look like in the western imagination. War has directly contributed to the ways bodies of “the other” are carved and cut into and has influenced the readiness to feast on fear and feed into narratives of domination. “[Y]our synergistic globalization is my conglomerate prostitution:” writes Lee, who drops glitter bombs on gendered and racialized fantasies of supremacy and submission in this book and stares you down until you take it.

I’m ok being your diversity plan;
It is my mode of existence: It is my mode of insistence
There is the cityplan under my belt of explosives;
It is my mode of modification: It is my mode of fornication

Defamation of American flag: Defecation of unidentifiable flag
An unidentifiable body surfaces on the level of cheap alliteration
Please do not litter; be a good noncitizen
Please use the container provided; be a good conartist

Is it ok that I am your diversity case? Is it ok that I am your basket case?
Is it tolerable that I am your varsity case? Is it permissible that I am your it-girl showcase? […] Is it okay I’m in your suitcase? Is it ok I’m your cold case? […] My belly is warm and I am your forensic case

(from “To:”)

In the opening poem, “To:,” I love the way “existence” becomes “insistence,” “modification” becomes “fornication,” “Defamation” becomes “Defecation,” “alliteration” becomes “litter,” “container” becomes “conartist,” “flag” becomes “body,” “basket case” becomes “showcase” becomes “suitcase” becomes “cold case.” Each word has a volatility of sound that threatens to transform, changing its molecular structure and its meaning. The references to “diversity plan” or “diversity case” hint at some kind of tokenization or exotification that the speaker fights against through the course of the piece—fighting even past death, the belly still warm.

Imma manhandle my fatbags like a boss
Imma boorish catcall your funsacks like a man […] Imma torch your house; lit with your beeswax
Imma rugburn your place down; like a boss on the secretary desk
Mind your own baloney business
& Go make me my balcony suicide sandwich

(from “you can’t handle my bloodhole”)

In “you can’t handle my bloodhole,” Lee lets fly more of her “commingledlanguage,” and like a “balcony suicide sandwich” you thought was baloney, it can be hard to chew. Words like “manhandle,” “fatbags,” “catcall,” “funsacks,” “beeswax” and “rugburn” roll around in the mouth but won’t break in two, just like the full-throttle, contractive force of “I am” and “gonna” in “Imma.” Ji Yoon Lee’s IMMA barrels on. It’s not water-soluble, “but you may need to swallow it.”

LR News: Happy October! (We’re back!)

Welcome back to another new season here on the LR blog! It’s been quiet here for a bit while we’ve taken our summer hiatus, but it’s October now, and we’re back—with wealth of exciting new content lined up for the months ahead.

This season, you can continue to expect more razor-sharp book reviews, interviews, and column posts contributed by our team of talented staff writers, as well as intermittent editorial updates about the progress of Issue 6, which we plan to release in early 2014.  (Friday Prompts, unfortunately, is on hold for now, while we make some adjustments to our workflow in order to make managing the blog more sustainable for the editorial team). This month, we’ll kick off with Jai Arun Ravine’s dual review of two recent chapbooks by Hoa Nguyen and Ji Yoon Lee, respectively.  In the weeks that follow, you can also look forward to an interview that Wendy Chin-Tanner conducted with Molly Gaudry and a fresh reflection on the purpose of poetry from Henry W. Leung’s column, “Panax Ginseng.”

As always, we welcome your feedback and suggestions, and would love to hear your updates. What are you reading, and what are you writing and thinking about as the last vestiges of summer fade from view and autumn begins in earnest? Have you published somewhere recently? Are you participating in any upcoming APIA literary events that you think we should know about? Leave us a comment, shoot us an email, or tell us on Facebook and Twitter; we’d love to hear from you.

Happy October!

Peace and Light,

Iris & Mia

A Conversation with Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Byer
Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Beyer is the author of the award-winning poetry collection We Come Elemental (Alice James Books), and chapbook bough breaks (Meritage Press).

Her poetry has appeared in The Volta, Octopus, DIAGRAM, H_ngm_n, diode, Copper Nickel, The Progressive, and other journals and several anthologies. She is a founding member of Agent 409: a queer, multi-racial writing collective in New York City that performed across the east coast and led workshops at conferences such as the U.S. Social Forum and Split this Rock Poetry Festival.

She has received several fellowships and grants, including a Kundiman fellowship, a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and an Olin and Chancellor’s Fellowships from Washington University in St. Louis. She was a longtime workshop leader for the New York Writers Coalition.

With a background in communications writing and grassroots organizing, Tamiko has worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the news program Democracy Now!, feminist film distributor Women Make Movies, and San Francisco Women Against Rape. Today, she is the Senior Writer at Corporate Accountability International.

Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Tamiko has lived on both the East and West coasts. She received her B.A. from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and her M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently lives in Cambridge with her partner, architect Kian Goh.

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LR: Water is the element that is focused on in We Come Elemental, and you have spoken about your interest in the queerness of water. Could you please tell us more about how you envision water as representative of queerness? How does this manifest itself in the book?

TB: Today, just a few days after the Supreme Court struck down the federal “Defense of Marriage” Act, is the last Sunday in June, and New York City is celebrating Gay Pride in all it’s corporatized glory. And [I do mean] it’s.

While I understand and appreciate the many wonderful things about the growing acceptance of gay people by mainstream society in the U.S., I also know that acceptance hinges to a large extent on an idea that gay people are “just like us,” with “us” being (to generalize for sure) white, middle class, heteronormative Americans, coupled with children.

And I’m thinking about how, for me, queerness—well, queer. That is, queerness is: not normative, existing on the exciting and sexy margins of sexuality, constructing radical and meaningful family structures that have little to do with the nuclear family and everything to do with chosen bonds. For me, queerness finds its power in its freakiness. And queerness is everywhere, has always been around, and, as it exists in the margins and applies its critique on the mainstream, is critical to the vitality and vibrancy of humanity. Which is also what makes it so terrifying to so many people.

I’m not sure I would say water represents queerness per se; rather, I find an inherent queerness in the element of water, and particularly in the fluidity of the element. My friend, poet Oliver Bendorf, who also writes a lot about water, described its queerness perfectly: “[I]t shape-shifts, takes on different forms, flows in hardened cracks, expands to fill the space it’s given.”

Water, so soft and smooth, will, in its insistent force, wear away vast canyons. It will freeze into glaciers that last for centuries. It will wash away whole shorelines. It is damn powerful—and its power is sometimes on full display (the crashing waves [of] the ocean, hurricanes and tsunamis), but more often it is barely noticeable, yet pervasive and inescapable. It (or its lack) permeates and affects almost every aspect of our lives—from our environment to the weather to how we nourish and sustain ourselves to how we play. This is how I see the force of queerness reflected in the element of water.

The poems in We Come Elemental are interested in many aspects of water, its queerness and eroticism, its pervasiveness, its ability to both heal and devastate. They also explore the not-so-simple relationship between human power and nature’s power of destruction and creation, in which water plays a key role.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Tamiko Beyer”

LR News: Reading Period for Issue 6 Now Open

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(Click on the banner above to submit your work to Issue 6).

Happy 4th of July! Summer is fully upon us at last, and we’re happy to announce that the reading period for our 2014 (sixth) issue is now open. Whereas Issue 5’s content focused on a special theme, we’ll be returning to a general submissions pool for Issue 6. Additionally, this issue marks our official transition into publishing the magazine annually, rather than biannually. After more than three years of struggling to keep up with the pace of a twice-a-year schedule, we have decided that it would be in the best interests of the magazine (and our responsibility to you as readers) to amend our publication schedule to just one issue a year. Not only will this provide us with a more realistic time frame in which to complete each issue, but it will also allow us to concentrate on producing content that is more cleanly edited and better designed than before. Issue 6 will therefore come out in 2014, though we will be reading submissions for it this summer.

It is our hope that this new, longer schedule will afford us the freedom to test out new formats and to more thoughtfully curate the content of future issues. Having very much enjoyed our experiment with a themed format with our last issue, we are excited to try introducing new elements in issues to come, including (though not necessarily limited to) different kinds of features and, hopefully, more themed issues, sprinkled in intermittently down the road. As we mentioned earlier, Issue 6 will be a general (non-themed) issue, but we have a special feature section planned for it, and are eager to see what wonderful new work you will share with us during this  reading period.

Submissions for LR Issue 6 will be open through 11:59 p.m. EST on August 1, 2013. To submit your work, please visit our submissions page, where you’ll be able to read our guidelines and proceed to our online form.

We hope you’ll consider sending a few of your best poems our way during this reading period. Many thanks for your continued support, and best of luck to all who submit. We look forward to reading your work!

Peace and light,

Iris & Mia
LR Editors

Panax Ginseng: The Other Wonders At Hawai’i

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.

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spahr1 spahr2 wang1

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It is by speaking of the “assumption of the myths of a race not [her] own, a race nearly annihilated by [her] kind” that Susanna Moore begins her quasi-memoir, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawaii (National Geographic 2003). She describes her “self-delighting pride at being a liminal participant in an authentic culture that continues, despite attempts to the contrary, to fear the ghostly night marchers . . .” This prefatory remark appears to apologize for her presumptions as a white woman writing about an island where she grew up with considerable privilege. Yet, notice the qualifiers—“self-delighting,” “liminal,” “authentic”—as they progress from the private to the public along a claim toward ownership. Identity politics frustrate me to no end, but as poetry and nonfiction on the subject of Hawaii have been coming across my desk recently, I have started to see that perhaps nobody can uncontestably write or rewrite Hawaii, not even those with genealogical ties to the native Hawaiians: for to call them natives today is to codify culture into a prelapsarian nostalgia, to selectively deny cultural change. I also wonder about recent mainland literatures about Hawaii and to what degree their conservatism and transgressions are intrinsic. I intend to look briefly here at three writers who claim a conflicted connection to Hawaii through the tension of poetic language: Susanna Moore, who lived on Oahu from early adolescence until she was a teenager; Juliana Spahr, who taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for half a decade; and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, who has been “going home” to the Big Island from the Midwest since her parents retired there. Each of their works brushes against the usual tropes that brand a Hawaiian text when written in English, such as provincial or pastoral expectations, a stylized pidgin lexicon, and a mystified engagement with history. Yet, our three writers clearly feel their outsiderness, and, in order to make meaning and make meaning communicable as required by their poetics, they find nuanced rhetorical forms to grant themselves permission. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: The Other Wonders At Hawai’i”

A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito

Kundiman co-founders
Kundiman co-founders Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi

To round off our APIA Heritage Month celebration, we sat down with Joseph O. Legaspi and Sarah Gambito, the co-founders of Kundiman—a nonprofit that serves young and emerging Asian American poets through its retreats, reading series, and community resources—to ask about their thoughts as the organization approaches its tenth year.

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LR: Kundiman is coming up on its tenth anniversary this year. How are you feeling about its turning a decade old? What have been some of your favorite moments from your involvement with it over the last ten years?

JL:  Kundiman going on 10 years is astounding to me. Wow! My feelings are overwhelmingly mixed, all strong emotions: for the most part I feel elation and pride, partially with dread and anxiety because there is still so much to do. The question is where do we go from here? We have a decade worth of accomplishments—most prominently, nearly 60 books and chapbooks published by Kundiman fellows—but how do we get to the next level where we are more stable and branch out and empower more Asian American writers. Oh, it is a celebration, of course, but now we’re working on how to sustain Kundiman for the next 10 years, and the next . . . As for my favorite moments, there are just too many. Lawson Inada at the Chinese buffet. Marilyn Chin dancing. The fellows’ sandwich-making contest. All closing circles. The singing, the camaraderie, the poems. The poems. The whole roller coaster [of] experience[s] as some of the most joyous in my life.

SG:  I agree. It overwhelms me that it has been 10 years. We’ve now seen an arc of fellows coming into their own—literally growing up before our eyes. We’ve read their poems, their books, attended their weddings, celebrated the births of children. It has been such a privilege to be able to witness fellows mentor each other, to become each other’s best and most trusted readers. What I love is that we’ve become a family in ways that are mysterious and then not mysterious. (This past winter, I hosted around 15 fellows at my apartment and cooked huge pots of ma po tofu and fried rice.) As for favorite moments, there are so many. I loved the Kundiman reading where Bei Dao and a fellow who had never read in public before and was just finishing college, Yael Villafranca, read together. I was thunderstruck because I realized that I was witnessing something that was so hard-worn, rare and precious: the knitting of generations of Asian and Asian American poets. I love the fellow toasts at graduation where we get to see how fellows have been so aware of each other and are praising each other.  I loved Kimiko Hahn saying “I give myself permission to be a writer. I’ve worked too hard to not do this” and then watching the fellows invoke this throughout the retreat in their own ways, both literary and personal. I loved having Tan Lin at Kundiman and watching him blow workshops out of the water and seeing fellows reorient their relationship to what words can do.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito”