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.
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.
The cover of Rachelle Cruz’s Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood (2012) features a skeletal exhibit of animal skulls and fangs, together with a spread-winged bat cleaved in half at the book’s spine. The back cover is a folded double of the front, which means we never see the bat’s torso or head (is it a bat at all?), only its bony limbs and the webbing between them. Jane Wong’s Dendrochronology (2011) features a floral-wreathed frame; within it, standing against a bright background suggesting a mirror or window, is a wolf turning to regard the viewer. Since these covers already work with mirror images, I’d like to hold these two chapbooks from Dancing Girl Press up to one another like mirrors, to see whether a rabbit hole might be found in the reflections’ depths. Consider the titles as well: a “self-portrait” fixes the artist’s gaze on herself, though the resulting image is of course only another depiction or illusion distorted by the medium, a rumor of sorts; and “dendrochronology” refers to those hypnotic concentric rings coded within the trunk of a tree, those layers expanding outward with time which we trace back to examine in cross sections.
In both chapbooks, the poems work within landscapes of violence and preservation. The central figure of Cruz’s Self-Portrait is the mythical Aswang of Filipino folklore, a placeholder for many ghoul/monster archetypes; here, she uses it as an object of savage exoticization, and as a mirror. These lines of verse prefigure the chapbook,
There was a girl who wanted to become an aswang
She didn’t know why aswang
While living in one country
another split her chest open
HEATH COURSE PAK by Tan Lin | Counterpath Press 2012 | $17.95
you have become a very beautiful thing in some
other version of a thing. or you have become a
very beautiful climbing apparatus in a program
Riding the GoToBus from Los Angeles to Oakland, I accidentally watched Rush Hour 3 and The Tuxedo from several strategically placed monitors while listening to the Counting Crows, M.I.A. and Meshell Ndegeocello on my headphones. I discovered that Jackie Chan, muted by a randomly generated soundtrack and offset by a variety of backdrops, is still Jackie Chan, in perhaps the same way Heath Ledger is still remembered as Heath in 10 Things I Hate About You (Modern Shakespearean Heath), Brokeback Mountain (Gay Cowboy Heath), or The Dark Knight (Joker-In-Drag Heath). When I wasn’t accidentally watching Jackie Chan fight somebody, I tried to look at the scenery off the 5, which I wanted to believe was more interesting but was in reality less accessible, and ended up accidentally reading incoming and outgoing text messages on the smart phone of a person sitting diagonally across the aisle. This entire experience—me accidentally looking at the mountains, Jackie Chan on mute, someone else’s text messages; you reading this compiled memory as a paragraph on a blog; followers liking, re-blogging, re-posting, sharing and tweeting this review; and then me importing the HTML into Microsoft Word and putting the whole thing through Google Translate a few times—might actually approach the experience of browsing and forgetting that is assembled in Tan Lin’s HEATH COURSE PAK.
What is HEATH?
plagiarism/outsource Ed. Rev., Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,Untilted Heath Ledger Project , a history of the search engine,disco OS annotated or HEATH, as the project is often referred to, is the revised second print edition of a book authored within a social network. Like following Heath Ledger’s death over the internet—through the rapid replication of speculative information, quotations, paraphrased material, tags and images as they unravel, reproduce and become felt by a social network—Lin’s assemblage of HEATH is a kind of muscle memory for feelings that are erased, re-written, read, scanned and searched repeatedly within a complex system of users, readers, commentators, followers, friends and authors.
Flip through the book once, and the ecology of HEATH shows coffee stains, autographed photos of Jackie Chan and Heath Ledger, images for GSM and RSS, handwritten post cards, post-its, SMS, blacked-out text and pencil markup. A closer look shows cut-and-paste traces of HTML imported into Word, extra line breaks created by absent flash advertisements, links and category tags, click here for details, edit/delete, captured image and text from Google searches, footnotes, text encoding/conversion, markup language, <space></space></CT> and other apparitions and pop-ups. In an interview that appears near the end of the book, Lin says, “These are all just various kinds of writing, where writing extends over a broad spectrum of textual matter and includes things with ‘weak’ author functions […] They all have been outsourced but not necessarily plagiarized, except by some sort of corporate branding structure or legal structure. […] Mistakes, formatting problems, copyright issues, unacknowledged sources are part of text. […] Everything is ‘authored,’ it’s just not clear who.” read more…
An award-winning Laotian American writer, Bryan Thao Worra works actively to support Laotian, Hmong and Southeast Asian American artists. His writing is recognized by the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota State Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has served as a consultant to the Minnesota History Center, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and the Minnesota Humanities Commission. He is also an active professional member of the Horror Writer Association and the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and represented Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the Poetry Parnassus of the London 2012 Summer Games. You can visit him online at http://thaoworra.blogspot.com.
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LR: How did you discover poetry and what led you to poetry as a vocation?
It wasn’t quite Pablo Neruda’s storied hymn
Of how poetry arrived in search of him. No.
I began at an age some consider very young,
Just a scribble of a soul undrawn to poetry
Until my senior year in Saline High.
One night, like a stroke of spring lightning,
I began to comprehend what verse could do,
What straight narrative could not,
For knot lives of flux best writ with pencil.
My first poem was for a pretty girl in Michigan, a mask.
Something about Batman’s Joker quoting Pagliacci.
Probing unexpected intersections,
I didn’t end up with the girl, naturally.
Still, it was an early lesson.
LR: Your work has achieved much critical success, with an NEA grant among your many honors, but your path to publication wasn’t traditional, in that you were neither an English major nor an MFA student, and your two full-length collections, On the Other Side of the Eye and Barrow, were published by Sam’s Dot Publishing, a science fiction and fantasy publisher, rather than a poetry press. What do you think your non-traditional poetic pedigree has lent to your perspective as a poet?
I read what I want to read.
I write what I want to write.
That’s a great freedom not everyone has.
I’m humbled to have that opportunity in life.
As a Lao American writer, without naming names,
I didn’t always, sometimes still don’t, get invited to
“Join in any reindeer games.”
Over time, that gave me strength.
“Get my work out there anyway. Any way.”
I push myself to be rigorous, but not hidebound
To one leathery school or dogma.
My writing doesn’t have to be
Safe or conventional as a faithful hound by some sad fire.
I fret not for tenure tracks or professional posts to be happy,
Nor grand accolades or book deals the envy of fading fool Midas.
One dragon summer, I was a cultural Olympian,
The sole writer representing all Lao
During the London games.
Between that and other laurels of yore,
I’m obliged to think
“I’m doing something right, surely.”
But that and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee.
Good morning, and Happy New Year! We’re back from our holiday hiatus!
We thought we’d start off 2013 with a quick editorial roundup of a few exciting news items that have been on our radar as of late, but which we didn’t have an opportunity to bring to your attention over the break:
Kundiman Poetry Retreat Applications Open
New fellow applications for the 2013 Kundiman retreat are now open, until February 1st. This year’s retreat will take place from June 19–23 at Fordham University, and its star-studded faculty lineup will feature Li-Young Lee, Srikanth Reddy, and Lee Ann Roripaugh. Why should you apply? Well, because the retreat is an experience like no other for anyone who considers themselves an Asian American poet. (And who wouldn’t want to chance to work with Li-Young Lee or Srikanth Reddy?) To learn more about the application process, visit the Kundiman web site. (And if you’d like to read some firsthand accounts of what the retreat’s like, you can read about Henry’s and my first experiences there in this 2011 post).
Contributor Eugenia Leigh to helm poetry section of Kartika Review
We recently learned that Issue 3 contributor (and guest reviewer) Eugenia Leigh will succeed Issue 2 contributor Kenji C. Liu as poetry editor of Kartika Review after the latter’s having stepped down from the position late last fall. To Eugenia: our congratulations on the new position—we are excited to see where you will be taking KR next; and to Kenji: cheers on a job well done, and best of luck with all of your future endeavors.
Madding Mission Journals and ECRITUREartefacts by Desmond Kon
Issue 1 contributor Desmond Kon recently launched two lines of literary art “objects”: Madding Mission Journals and ECRITUREartefacts. I’ve long been a fan of Desmond’s hand-lettered art as well as of his poetry, and both of these collections of goods, which feature stylish typography, quirky poem-snippets, and the occasional cheeky illustration (like a mug featuring a bar of soap, a lemon, and a high-heeled shoe), feature both of his talents to full effect. Congrats to Desmond on this new and exciting venture. Check out his line of blank journals here, and his shop of other literary goods here.
* * *
That’s all the news we have for you this morning. Regular content on the blog will resume later this week; check back on Wednesday for our first contributor post of the New Year, in which Wendy Chin-Tanner interviews Lao American poet (and Issue 4 contributor) Bryan Thao Worra.
Every year around the holidays, we post a roundup of books recommended by our staff writers to the LR Blog. The end of the current year is now fast approaching, and so in continuation of our tradition, here is a list of titles we enjoyed reading in 2012 and wanted to share with you:
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Rules of the House
by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
Apogee Press, 2002
Recommended by Mia: “I recently started teaching full-time, so I haven’t had much time to read poetry… but I’m slowly working through Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s Rules of the House. I’ve been savoring every poem because Dhompa has this way of leveling the reader with the slightest detail, all the while developing complex arcs that echo and extend throughout the book.”
* * *
The Pillow Book
by Jee Leong Koh
Math Paper Press, 2012
Recommended by Wendy: “Inspired by the example of eleventh-century Japanese author and court lady Sei Shōnagon, Jee Leong Koh collects his miscellaneous jottings in his own pillow book. Written in the genre called zuihitsu, which compromises both prose and poetry, these observations, lists and anecdotes on life in Singapore and New York are, in turn, humorous, reflective, satirical, nostalgic and outrageous.”
* * *
Gardening Secrets of the Dead
by Lee Herrick
Word Tech Editions, 2012
Recommended by Wendy: “[In Brian Turner's words]: ‘Lee Herrick’s Gardening Secrets of the Dead is a lyric exploration of the fractured and fragmented landscape of the self, where the body is a song composed of many selves. Whitman revised, the poems ‘celebrate and assemble/ from around the world’ with a voice that is politically engaged and rooted in compassion.’”
* * *
by giovanni singleton
Counterpath Press 2012
Winner of the 81st Annual California Book Award for Poetry
Recommended by Jai: “Comprised mostly of a daybook written during musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane’s 49-day transition between death and rebirth, giovanni singleton’s Ascension rings with unexpected cadences. As a soul ascends, what settles and rattles at our feet? From day to day, where are the stillnesses? These are the questions this book leads me to ask, as singleton takes us ‘way back to // where every sound / was a story and // every silence / epic.’”
* * *
“Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine“
[Volume 23.2 of Manoa]
Recommended by Henry: “This is volume 23.2 of Manoa, the volume that came out in 2011 just prior to ‘Sky Lanterns,’ with beautiful glass-plate negatives of Hawaii, and featuring writers on a variety of illusory paradises not limited to the Pacific. The essays especially are worth checking out!”
* * *
by Kristen Eliason
Dancing Girl Press, 2012
Recommended by Iris: “I’ve been reading a lot of chaps this year (they’re perfect for short amounts of time, so I can read one on my lunch break), and this one is an absolute gift. Living overseas in the wake of a momentous tragedy, Eliason’s speaker grapples with her alienation and grief in a series of heartbreakingly spare missives—quiet snapshots in whose white spaces the rawness of loss seeps through. Eliason has a talent for lyric invocation, but the real power of this chap, for me, really lies in the spaces of absence that pit and fragment her text—the things she allows her speaker to leave unsaid.”
* * *
Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood
by Rachelle Cruz
Dancing Girl Press, 2012
Recommended by Iris: ”Another fabulous Dancing Girl title. Notable for the courageous viscerality of its voice, Cruz’s chap is tonally very different from Eliason’s, but also intensely powerful. Cruz’s speaker is a shape-shifter, slipping easily in and out of voices and narratives from across time and space in order to weave together a portrait that glistens as much with sinew as it does with the force of its story.”
* * *
Staff Publications: The LR Blog staff has also had a particularly busy year in terms of our own individual writing lives, and since this post is the one time a year that we get to feature the staff, we thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to share some of their recent and forthcoming publications with you. If you follow the blog regularly and are curious about our bloggers’ own poetic work, we hope you’ll consider adding a few of these titles to your future reading lists, as well!
- Jai Arun Ravine’s collection, แล้ว and then entwine, was published by Tinfish in 2011.
- Henry W. Leung’s Paradise Hunger won the 2012 Swan Scythe Press Poetry Chapbook Contest, and was published this fall.
- Mia A. Malhotra has a sheaf of poems in the Fall/Winter issue of AALR.
- Iris A. Law’s chapbook, Periodicity, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in February.
- Wendy Chin-Tanner’s first collection, Turn, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in March 2014.
Magnetic Refrain by Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut | Kaya Press 2013 | $14.95
. . . Conjoined at the hip, we could
only pretend to be aligned but really
were so frantic to separate. You tried
to saw us in half, after I’d fallen asleep,
then I’d woken to what you’d done,
brilliantly. You’d bandaged the sopping
blood at the split bone and medicated me,
but still, I was pleased by our most recent
attempt at sovereignty. I could not
complain for lack of dishonesty.
It has never been that easy, keeping you
secret, when you keep dividing me.
(from “Dear Other,” series)
In Magnetic Refrain, transnational Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut speaks through folktales and fox-demons, inflatable dolls and war brides, defectors seeking asylum and mothers separated from their children by adoption and military partition, to explore the magnetism of twinning, the conjunction of self and other, and the continued return to the loss of never knowing.
Like the poems “The Unfilial Daughter” and “The Filial Son,” or “Venus and the Martian,” many pieces and personas in this collection mirror each other in their adjacency, like twins. The tension becomes a metaphor for the diasporic longing to come together, cross the water, and belong within a family history that straddles endless divisions.
As an adoptee with two birth dates and two different names, Schildkraut writes of the phantom parallel trajectory of a life that could have been lived, a loss that begins to haunt. Two sets of parents. Mother and other, “multiplying instead of living” (“The Lucky Bastard”). Schildkraut gestures toward a fantasy of joining these two trajectories, a fantasy in which one becomes two becomes one, becomes same.
Twins, siblings and lovers recur, wanting the m/other, “[taking] turns becoming invisible” and then “long[ing] to become visible, again” (“Family History”), “pulling her in half” (“The Twin She Never Knew”). The “magnetic refrain” of the book contemplates what holds two people together—a child to its family—and whether or not these magnetisms could be classified as “love.”
Schildkraut’s collection features many poems in the second person, but the point of view shifts in the final piece, “Vaguely Asian,” where the weight of her explorations via folklore and human/doll hybrids settles into a more personal narrative. Here, Schildkraut’s sharp voice struggles with the diasporic plight of not knowing, and what it means to be given up “out of love, for strangers in a foreign country” (“Oedipal”). Looking at an old scrapbook, she writes, “The pages for early memories from birth to early childhood, date and time of birth, are all left blank.” Visiting a Korean shaman, she asks herself, “What can she tell me about my other, early life in Korea that hasn’t already been made up out of thin air?”
“It’s a different kind of loss, to never know,” realizes Schildkraut. Her poems and personas literally and figuratively become inflated by longing. She ends “Vaguely Asian” with the following revelation regarding origin and place: “And even if those origins are obscured, the drive to search still remains like a lantern sending a fractured pattern of shapes against the wall at dusk, half-shadows, half-light.” These poems breathe into the shell of diasporic desire, and allow us to witness the speaker’s first flickering attempts toward animation and fullness.
* * *
Magnetic Refrain will be published by Kaya Press on February 4, 2013.
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. More of her translations can be found at Action Books, Tinfish Press, and Zephyr Press.
* * *
LR: Before you published The Morning News Is Exciting, you were known as a translator of Korean poetry, having translated the work of three Korean female poets and published those translations in The Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women. Do the techniques you employ in your translation work play a role in how you write your own poetry, and if so, how?
DMC: There are a few overlaps. I think the primary one is that there is the process of translating my own voice, which is in Korean as well as English and sometimes all mixed up, depending on what memories I am tapping into. My English was strange for a long time. I’m sure it still is. When my younger brother was growing up in Hong Kong, he spoke Korean, English, Cantonese, and Japanese all mixed up together. He and his Japanese friends communicated perfectly in this mixed-up language. They were too young to censor themselves. The same thing was going on in my head except that I was older and knew how to censor myself. I only freely talked funny with my sister and a Chinese friend who also knew how to talk funny. At school, I wore my uniform and memorized and recited things perfectly that I didn’t understand at all. I always failed because that funny voice inside me always butchered my English. So translating and writing is like this for me. I wear my school uniform and try to memorize and recite poems perfectly, but I always end up butchering them. My primary technique for translation and my own poetry is failure.
LR: Of the poetry you have translated, which particular writers or works remain the most resonant and influential for you?
DMC: All three poets in Anxiety of Words—Ch’oe Sûng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yôn-ju—had impact on me deeply. It was very emotional for me to learn about their work, interview them, and translate them. It didn’t involve just knowing the language or culture. It was a difficult and painful process of sorting out my own dislocation, understanding how my own displacement has been translated by others and represented in the official narratives of power. So I understood and still understand my translation and writing work as a decolonizing act. Kim Hyesoon’s work never fails to excite me as I continue to translate her latest work as well as her older work. She is categorized and referred to as one of the “1980’s poets,” yet she remains prolific and brilliant, continuing to break down, subvert, or invert literary expectations and boundaries that contain and regulate women in South Korea.