In Koon Woon’s Water Chasing Water, a river appears in one poem and flows into the next, appearing there as rain, turning up in one place as an ocean and in yet another as a damp and soggy sadness. I was immediately reminded of lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and there on thúy’s first page: “Ba and I were connected to the four uncles, not by blood but by water” (3).
Woon’s text gestures toward the meanings of water—as life-giving force, as connective tissue, as that which carries us. lê thi diem thúy explains that “In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for anation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu’ó’c.” In Thai, the word for river (แม่น้ำ) is made up of the word for mother (แม่) and the word for water (น้ำ). For the diasporic fish/ghost/dish-washer in Woon’s poems, water connects places to other places, traveling from person to person and washing up memories and other debris.
As if glazed in the afternoon heat,
the blackberry brambles are still and
quiet, the steel rail expanding,
and once the roar of a rumbling freight
passes and dies, the slough,
quiet again with its currents,
becomes water moving on
in my unregulated childhood.
[. . .]
In the waters between us are
the gurgling sounds of childhood empires
and paper boats, and in the parcels of land
that sustain us, the memories of stickers
and hand-staining berries;
in nights of sleep,
a child’s reworking of paradise. (“As If,” 5)
Esther Lee has written Spit, a poetry collection selected for the Elixir Press Poetry Prize (2011) and her chapbook, The Blank Missives (Trafficker Press, 2007). Her poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Lantern Review, Ploughshares, Verse Daily, Salt Hill, Good Foot, Swink, Hyphen, Born Magazine, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University where she served as Editor-in-Chief for Indiana Review. She has been awarded the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize and Utah Writer’s Contest Award for Poetry selected by Brenda Shaughnessy, as well as having been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and AWP Intro Journals Project. Currently, she pursues a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Utah and lives with her fiancé, Michael, and their dog and three cats in Salt Lake. Starting this fall, she will begin teaching as an assistant professor at Agnes Scott College.
This April, we are returning to our Process Profiles series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their writing process for an individual poem or poetic sequence of theirs. As in the past, we’ve asked Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a piece of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Esther Lee reflects upon the excerpt of her project Daughters of Celluloidthat appeared in Issue 5.
* * *
(if his plate would not record the clouds, he could point his camera down and eliminate the sky)
If there is a hegemonic familial gaze, imposing rigid familial ideologies, then mothers are most cruelly subjected to its scrutiny.
Excerpts of this Process Profile are pulled from a craft talk titled, “Double Exposures: Photographic Fictions and Traumatic Memories” given at Virginia Tech. All photographic images are ones I’ve taken or borrowed from family albums.
My hope is to invite you into a constellation of influences—and mostly questions—I’m working with and exploring in this work-in-progress, tentatively titled Daughters of Celluloid. This constellation includes the works of writers and artists who meditate on, thematize, and/or employ photography, as well as those whose works investigate the complexities of trauma and representations, in particular, of trauma not directly experienced first-hand. So a kind of assemblage, if you will, one that is part wax, part string, part etched glass.
In Daughters of Celluloid, the narrator finds that her mother’s enigmatic past is pocked with speech, presented as fragmented anecdotes, suggesting recessed narratives of trauma and dislocation. To borrow a phrase from the French novelist and Holocaust writer, Henri Raczymow, memory is “shot through with holes” and underscored by potential absences of family photographs wherein large swaths of time and space have seemingly vanished, losing any semblance of continuity. As a result, the narrator finds herself attempting to photograph the mother, grappling with how the camera can both fix and unfix them. In doing so, they disrupt their unspoken ways of looking, complicating the myths of familial memory and, ultimately, searching for what Alison Bechdel describes in her graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, as a “mutual cathexis” between mother and daughter, wherein they can recognize each other’s invisible wounds.
He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.
* * *
LR: As a writer, you have the unusual ability to move seamlessly between genres—poetry, fiction, and essays. Can you describe what it’s like to make those transitions? Does your creative process change between genres and if so, how?
KA: I always liked a musical, lyrical, rhythmic kind of prose. Anais Nin’s book The House of Incest was one of my favorite books growing up. I found myself attracted to brief prose forms, ones that could be taken in at a single setting, that acted nearly as music. I like transporting the shape of a lyric poem into prose, whether an essay or fiction.
The form of the “prose poem” per se has never been very interesting to me. First of all because I love the sentence more than the paragraph. And secondly because what prose—the novel or the essay—really offered was time. So I am not interested in brief prose forms, flash fiction or whatever.
There are times when the question of genre doesn’t matter. My book Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, for example—does it matter if it is prose-poetry or lyric memoir or whatever? I’ve often thought it should be taught in Urban Studies classes. It is about “cities” after all!
Does the category matter? Only if you are trying to sell the book, not for the reader or for the writer. It was written as a “book;” that’s pretty much what I have to say about it. Of course it’s prefigured by texts like “Event,” “Train Ride,” “The Journey,” and “Travel,” all published as poems in my first collection The Far Mosque.
I am not sure I think about genre as I am writing, but many times as I work on poems (I have been working on one about Varanasi for a long time) I will think: this needs to be in prose because I need more time.
Poems happen in a moment, like music, while prose creates an architecture of experience, like dance? Is that it?
LR: Your prose is often infused with poetry, and you sometimes work with prose poetry. What inspires you about crossing genres?
KA: Well, language is itself, queer, revelatory and unsettling. So it’s the “poetry” or the non-normative, the performative and oral, that I privilege always. Bringing the resources of poetry in the novel or the essay is my path. I barely write traditional narrative poetry, though some comes in here and there (for example, in my recent book Sky Ward there are many narrative poems, including “Fairy Tale,” but this is a new development! Who knows how long it will last).
LR: How has your background in music and dance informed your poetry?
KA: Sound and silence have always been critical to me in constructing a poem, often times coming before sense or leading me to some kind of sense. (Though I am still suspicious of nonsense, I confess). Dance (and yoga) helped me to learned the physical capabilities of the body and the length of a breath. Choreographing on a stage gives you lots to think about in terms of the shape of a poem and the shape of the page.
Do you know that reading series “Page Meets Stage”? I have never (yet) been invited to participate but I think I am both Page and Stage. In fact the page is a stage, isn’t it? I feel a lot of kinship with writers who work in both senses.
Happy April! It’s national poetry month, and as usual, we’re celebrating both this month and next (APIA heritage month) on the LR blog with lots of Asian American poetry goodness. This year, for April, we’ll be running an installment of our annual Process Profiles series, and we’ve also teamed up with our friends at the Asian American Literary Reviewand Kaya Press to offer a giveaway that includes some truly awesome prizes.
First, though, we want to hear from you: what Asian American poets are on your reading list for this April, or what’s one poet whom you’d recommend to people who want to read more Asian American poetry this month? Leave a comment on this post by April 22nd with the name of at least one Asian American poet whose work you love, and you’ll be entered in a random drawing to win a 1-year subscription to AALR, a copy of Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s Magnetic Refrain(reviewed on our blog here), and a copy of our very own Henry W. Leung’s chapbook, Paradise Hunger.
But the APIA poetry love doesn’t stop there! Those of you who follow us on Facebook might remember seeing pictures of the “Poetry Starter Packs” from our AWP display this year—little envelopes containing prompts and ekphrastic/found inspiration that we handed out to passers-by in the bookfair. Well, if you weren’t able to make AWP (or even if you picked up a starter pack there, but want more to share), here is your chance: we’ll be giving away bundles of 5 poetry starter packs—some to keep, and some to share—to each of the first ten (10) people to enter!
To help get you thinking, we thought we’d ask some of our Issue 5 contributors what Asian American poets they’ve been reading or whose work they’d recommend to others this month. Here’s what a couple of them said.
From Ching-In Chen:
I adore Larissa Lai’sEggs in the Basement because she generated/mutated the whole body of language/the story from the actual language that she is playing with: “I generated a body of source text in a ten-minute automatic exercise, separated it as neatly as possible into subjects and predicates and wrote the poem by repeating first all the subjects and and cycling through the predicates in the first half, and then reversing the procedure for the second. Strangely, the result is loosely the story of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, in which two murders are committed by a collective: an initial one, which traumatizes the collective, and a second, which covers over the first and consolidates an violent and violated melancholy from which the group cannot escape.” Next on my reading list is Paolo Javier’s The Feeling is Actual. I witnessed Paolo’s live film narration of “Monty and Turtle,” on the Feminism Meets Neo-Benshi: Movietelling Talks Back panel at AWP recently, which explores the story of an Asian American artist couple, and loved what I saw! After some discussion about the question about appropriation within neo/benshi practice, Paolo said that he dealt with this question by creating his own film clips to narrate to. Though the film clips aren’t part of the book, his script is published in this book.
From Desmond Kon:
For a lecture I’m giving, I’m rereading Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu and published by Talisman House in 2000. In my research, I discovered Liu’s lovely essay titled, “Making the Case for Asian-American Poetry”, on Poets.org. I also just received Iris A. Law’s chapbook of wildly intelligent poems: Periodicity. These are lyric gems, some persona poems, that thread the imagined voices of great women scientists like Marie Curie, Rachel Carson and Anna Atkins. Finally, to throw in some fiction, I’m reading Tash Aw’s newest novel, Five Star Billionaire. The book intertwines the lives of migrant Malaysian workers, trying to eke out a living in Shanghai – this “Paris of the East” is at once bright lights and dog-eat-dog. In fact, Tash Aw is doing a reading at this awesome and intimate bookstore BooksActually, and I’m really looking forward to hearing him talk about the writing of his novel.
Our National Poetry Month giveaway will end at 11:59 PM EST on Monday, April 22nd. Winners will be announced the following week. Many thanks to our partners, Kaya Press and AALR, for their generous sponsorship, as well as to LR staff writer Henry Leung for donating a copy of his chapbook. We look forward to hearing from you, and hope that the comments that others leave in this thread will inspire you to read more Asian American poetry this April!
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.
Bruce Lee wrote a considerable number of poems, most of which were compiled for the first time in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (Tuttle, 1999), and I’ve only seen two critical writings on them, both published in The Rumpus a year apart from each other. The first is Dave Landsberger’s “Poetry Kung Fu” from October 2011, and the second is David Biespiel’s “Bruce Lee’s Advice to Poets” from his “Poetry Wire” column in November 2012. Landsberger provides a generous reading of several of Lee’s poems with the intention of expanding the public image of the martial arts superstar, of using Lee as a model of artistic sincerity over artificial self-image, and of expressing his own enthusiasm for his layered portrait of Lee. Landsberger’s readings of the poems’ influences are astute, though his presentation is perhaps overly sentimental, and his exclamatory rhetoric (ironic though it may be) belies the sensationalism he cannot separate from Bruce Lee’s public image even in a treatment of his quieter poetry, as when he concludes an analysis by saying: “Poetry Kung-fu!” Indeed, the essay as a whole—with its demotic reiterations of Bruce Lee not just as a film star, but as a studious “dude who sat on a hood of a car with Steve McQueen eating cylindrical meats,” and sensitive husband to Linda Lee Caldwell—is more of a re-portraiture than a close analysis of poetry, a marveling at more than a study.
What concerns me about Landsberger’s reading, however, is its binary representation of cultural difference. He tells us early on that the above portrait of Lee eating hot dogs with Steve McQueen is “quite possibly the most American image this article will see.” Later, he must preface an explanation of Lee’s themes of longing with, “In Eastern thought . . .” and I’m not entirely sure whether to read this as the same application of aesthetic imperialism common to Lee’s time (merely replacing the word Oriental with Eastern), or as a more modern Orientalism in which the distancing of Lee’s work comes out of praise rather than discredit. In any case, Landsberger feels the need to justify Lee’s longing by noting, inaccurately: “to Western audiences this often reads as insecurity . . .” And he concludes the same section with a line beginning: “Perhaps the only thing Lee traditionally shares with some famous Western poets . . .” The imprecision of his readings aside, these statements are curious to me because even after all this time, even in a modern re-portraiture which addresses the literary sophistication of Bruce Lee’s character, Lee is still a shopworn image representing vast cultural differences and misunderstandings.
Landsberger doesn’t consider the fact that Lee’s poems are written in English, or that born in San Francisco but with a life split between America and Hong Kong, Lee had his choice of languages. That he translated Chinese dynastic poems into English and that his own poems played with Daoist sensibilities doesn’t necessarily place Lee in a position of representing “Eastern thought,” especially in an America which had already seen the popularization of Buddhist Modernism. It may be more apposite to read Lee’s linguistic proclivities as hybrid, not merely on an East/West scale but in the friction of the natural and the urban, a common theme in his early films. Landsberger fixates on the pastoral beauty of Lee’s poems, but neglects to notice the urbanity from which they arise, as in his Seattle poems set on Lake Washington, and especially in “The Surroundings Utter No Sound,” a goodbye poem in which the speaker says, “Anxiously I stopped the car by the roadside,” winding toward a beautiful ending situated somewhere between nature and city:
Like mountain streams, we part and meet again,
Everything is still,
Except the occasional lonely bark of a dog.
At long last, the fifth issue of Lantern Review is now live! (And our site has been given a long-overdue face lift to match). Themed around the topic of “hybridity,” Issue 5 features 100 pages of content, including poetry by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, Amy Uyematsu, Sally Wen Mao, Esther Lee, Christopher Santiago, Khaty Xiong, Kristen Eliason, Jane Wong, Carrie Green, and Ching-In Chen; visual art by Karen An-Hwei Lee and Michael Marcinek; and a special feature on the work of Takeo Rivera, in which we interview the poet/playwright/scholar and present an excerpt of his choreopoem Prometheus Nguyen. Our very first themed issue, and perhaps our most challenging to put together to date, Issue 5 has been a long time in coming, but we think it’s been more than worth the wait, and we’re confident that you’ll feel the same.
To enter the issue, click here or on the cover image at the top of this post. We’d love to hear what you think about this new, thematic format, as well as our transition to a more streamlined, Google-Fonts-based design for both the site and the magazine. And of course, if you experience any technical issues while browsing, please don’t hesitate to let us know that, either. Drop us a line at editors [at] lanternreview.com at any time; we’re always grateful for your feedback.
A very happy Monday (of AWP week!) to you, and many thanks again for your continued support of Lantern Review.
Here’s a preview of what Lantern Review will be up to at this year’s AWP conference… which is coming up in just a few days! You’ll find us listed in the bookfair catalogue as Lantern Review / Kartika Review, locatedat Table Y2 in Exhibit Hall D, Level 2. For the second year in a row, we’ll be tabling with Kartika Review — this time, with the wonderful support of our friends at TAYO Literary Magazineand Hyphen.
We’ll have chapbooks, magazines, and lots of other information about what’s happening in the Asian American literary world… not to mention an interactive display that will allow you to “put yourself on the map,” so to speak, of Asian American literature. See you next week!
Some Panels of Interest:
R131. Baring/Bearing Race in the Creative Writing Classroom. (Aimee Suzara, Kwame Dawes, Debra Busman, Diana Garcia, Lee Herrick)
F150. Intersecting Lineages: Poets of Color on Cross-Community Collaboration. (Ching-In Chen, Sherwin Bitsui, Celeste Guzman Mendoza, Hayan Charara, Kevin Simmonds)
F162. The New Workshop: Literary Community through Pedagogical Innovation, Sponsored by Kundiman. (Sarah Gambito, Regie Cabico, Paisley Rekdal, Myung Mi Kim)
F251. The Divided Heart: Writing Far From Home. (Sandra Yee, Eduardo C. Corral, Ishion Hutchinson, Valzhyna Mort, Jane Wong)
F279. Visible Shores: Writers of Color Listening Across Waters. (Patrick Rosal, Tiphanie Yanique, Roger Bonair-Agard, Christian Campbell, Rachelle Cruz)
LR: Can you share with us some of the decisions you made around structure and narrative when you were putting together Seam?
TF:Seam centers around a long sequence entitled “Interview with a Birangona,” which imagines the process of a Bangladeshi-American female interviewer speaking with a birangona, a Bangladeshi woman raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. The sequence is woven with and bookended by poems interrogating the interviewer’s own heritage and personal losses.
I began writing the first of the interview poems my second year of graduate school, and put them away until two years later when I received a Fulbright to Bangladesh to interview the birangona and conduct further research on the 1971 Liberation War.
Seam is a book that narratively and structurally relies on distance: between two continents and cultures as well as between the year of Bangladesh’s independence and its modern moment. “1971,” for example, the first poem of the book, imagines the Bangladeshi-American interviewer imagining her mother as a young girl watching her mother bathe in a pond during the war. When I returned from Bangladesh, I had a stack of six years’ worth of poems. Only then was I able to begin the work of shaping Seam into a collection that tries to both enact and traverse that distance.
LR: How did your experience as a Fulbright scholar in Bangladesh influence the development of your manuscript?
TF: One of the main reasons I applied for a Fulbright to Bangladesh was because I had started to worry about the ethical consequences of “Interview with a Birangona.” So many of the women who were raped in 1971 are still alive in Bangladesh, and I began to question whether the project was appropriating the voices of the very women I was struggling to render and understand.
Seam could not have happened without my time in Bangladesh, where I spent a year researching the war and interviewing many birangona. My daily life also became part of the mosaic of my time in Bangladesh, and therefore part of Seam.
When I began to speak with the birangona, I realized how inadequate those early poems truly were. They could not encompass the full complexity of their lives nor mine. I spent a great deal of time with a family of sisters, each of whom had been raped during the war. At one point, while I was interviewing one sister, another sister came up behind me and gathered my hair in her hands. “You poor thing . . . you must have no one to comb your hair,” she said.
I still have no words for how I felt about a woman enduring such horror feeling sorry for me. In this way, and so many others, my time in Bangladesh made me rethink culture, victimhood, violence, and empathy.
China Cowboy by Kim Gek Lin Short | Tarpaulin Sky Press 2012 | $14
Gross and gorgeous about sums up the Kansas City karaoke nightclub and TECHNICOLOR cinema that is Kim Gek Lin Short’s China Cowboy—all “gorge,” gore and zero pretty. Short’s work is often grossly disturbing and excruciatingly seductive, catching the reader in a tense push and pull with and against the text. Sticky and stuck among the fucking and fucked-up, Short binds us within tales of fierce femme survival as her main character, the feisty and fisty La La, avenges the repeated death of Hollywood’s “dragon lady” with her boots, her mic, and her “country superstar humility.”
Short’s La La reminds me of the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) when O-Ren Ishii (portrayed by Lucy Liu) severs Boss Tanaka’s head in front of the Tokyo crime council. When Boss Tanaka expresses his disgust at the perversion done to the council “by making a Chinese Jap-American half breed bitch [O-Ren] its leader,” she runs across the table and decapitates him, without hesitation. She waits for the blood to finish spurting from the cut, re-sheaths her sword, and with Boss Tanaka’s blood on her forehead, calmly addresses the other men:
[in Japanese] So that you understand how serious I am, I am going to say this in English. [re-sheaths sword, switches to English] As your leader, I encourage you from time to time, and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic. If you’re unconvinced a particular plan of action I’ve decided is the wisest, tell me so. But allow me to convince you. And I promise you, right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo. [cut to close-up] Except, of course, the subject that was just under discussion. The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is, I collect your fucking head. [holds up Tanaka’s head] Just like this fucker here. [crescendo] Now if any of you sons of bitches got anything else to say, now is the fucking time! [silence, returns to calmer tone] I didn’t think so. [drops Tanaka’s head on table] (O-Ren Ishii, Kill Bill Vol. 1)
O-Ren’s swift and deadly gesture, as well as her sweet and brutal speech, is punctuated by the smiling faces of the only other women in the room, Gogo Yubari and translator Sofie Fatale. Here in a world of men, O-Ren reminds us of La La, who “can fly like they do in chop-chop movies,” “bawl in cowboy” and “lasso a noodle” (17). Just under 5’3″ in cowboy boots, La La is a ferocious folk-singer who headlines as “Patsy Clone” in the Kansas City nightclub from which this book takes its name, a nightclub that becomes a kissing-confessional booth square-dance around her “stab-n-steal” life, stolen death and steely fame.
It’s been a cold winter here in Lexington: week after week of ice storms, snow, freezing rain, and temperatures frequently hovering at or below freezing. When I lived in Indiana, this kind of weather was par for the course, but here in Kentucky, it’s the kind of weather that seems to make everybody (including me) want to retreat deep into bunker mode, to hole up with blankets and space heaters and wait out the long freeze with a big mug of tea and several seasons’ worth of TV shows. So whenever we are granted a momentary reprieve from the ice and frigid wind, all of us, it seems, just have to get out and enjoy the sun. Last Wednesday, in the gap between two back-to-back snow storms, the weather inexplicably skyrocketed to a balmy 70 degrees, so I decided to take advantage of the warmth and walked to the bank during my lunch break. Everything outside seemed blowsy and beautiful, and although I knew that the mild spell would not last for long (another cold front rolled in the very next day), I momentarily had the sense of time lengthening, as if the sun and warmth, now that it had come, would stretch out forever.
In one of my favorite poems of Denise Levertov’s, “Love Song,” the poet writes of the way in which our appreciation of beautiful things is often accompanied by a sense of reverence for their “length”: the way in which their beauty seems far-reaching and robust, so that we are caught in the lingering spell of its echo even after it has faded from immediate view. Writes Levertov:
Your beauty, which I lost sight of once
for a long time, is long,
not symmetrical, and wears
the earth colors that make me see it.
A long beauty, what is that?
that can be sung over and over,
long notes or long bones.
I love how Levertov makes use of a single parameter—in this case, that of scale, or length—to create an overarching conceit that directs, and indeed elevates, the whole of her poem. Length becomes a centering imagistic motif, a node of almost liturgical repetition, even a sonic intervention in which the consonance of the repeated “o”s in the poem masterfully open up its soundscape so that it gives the impression of vast boundlessness, belying the deceptively simple syntax. The motif of length stretches the poem out, across time, space, the page, and ultimately, we the readers find ourselves savoring the slow, warm loveliness of its own “long” beauty.
Prompt: write a poem that employs the concept of scale (either “length” or “brevity”) as its primary conceit. Try writing a poem that expresses enormity, extension, boundlessness, or try writing one that attempts to make itself as miniscule or microscopic as possible. Experiment with “scale” in the poem’s form and sonic structure, as well as in its imagery: try using one-word lines, or try extending your lines across multiple pages; write in short, clipped syntax, or stretch the sounds of your words out with long tangles of consonants or round, open vowel sounds.