Friends & Neighbors: A Week of APIA Poetry at The Best American Poetry Blog

Kenji C. Liu hosts an APIA Month Series at The Best American Poetry Blog.

We usually don’t post on the weekend, but I’m posting today because we wanted to let you know about an awesome series that LR Contributor and Kartika Review poetry editor Kenji C. Liu is curating this week at The Best American Poetry Blog, in honor of APIA Heritage Month.  Kenji has invited me (Iris), along with 3 other editors and self-identified writers of Asian American poetry—Patricia Ikeda, Gerald Maa of AALR, and Barbara Jane Reyes—to contribute posts to the series, and it’s been both an honor and a pleasure to be able to work with him.

Kenji kicked off the series today with this awesome introductory post, in which he discusses both the difficulty and the utility of curating poetry through the lens of the “Asian American” label, and describes his thoughts about the importance of the conversation that will take place throughout the week. (He plans to spotlight the work of several Asian American poets who have come to their vocations through alternative/non-standard/non-MFA routes).

He is clear to note that the purpose of these posts is not to engage in a debate about the worth of the MFA (indeed, he acknowledges that the MFA is a valuable resource), but to “bring . . .  greater attention” to APIA poets who have not gone that route, in “recogniz[ing] that a formal graduate education in creative writing often provides resources and networking opportunities that may not be as easily accessible for others.”

I’ll post to the LR blog again when my contribution, which will focus on dual-discipline LR contributors Aryanil Mukherjee (who’s an engineering mathematician) and Kimberly Alidio (whose graduate training is in History) goes live, but in the meantime, we invite you to continue checking back with the Best American Poetry Blog throughout the week to watch our discussion unfold.

Congratulations to Kenji, and many thanks to him for allowing us to be a part of this important conversation.

To follow the series, “A Week of Asian Pacific Islander American Poetry,” please visit The Best American Poetry Blog.

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Kenji C. Liu’s poem “A Son Writes Back” appeared in Issue 2 of Lantern Review.

Poetry in History: The Angel Island Poems

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts.  For each post in the series, we’ll highlight poetry written during and/or about an important period in Asian American history and will conclude with some ideas that we hope will provoke you to responding to these poems in your own work.  Today’s post centers around the wall poems written by Chinese immigrants who were detained in the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Angel Island Wall Carvings

This Saturday (May 8th) marks the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station.  Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940.  During the era of Chinese Exclusion, immigration interviews were more like interrogations.  American officials often asked impossibly detailed questions that were supposedly designed to root out anyone who was attempting to enter the country illegally, but in reality, the questions served mainly to intimidate immigrants and pit family members’ accounts against one another.  Conditions in the barracks were very much like prison, too.  Detainees were separated by gender and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time.

To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls.  Discovered in 1970 by a park ranger, 135 poems from the men’s barracks survive and have been preserved (the women’s barracks, unfortunately, were destroyed in a fire long before the 70’s).  The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure.  In 1999, Genny Lim, Him Mark Lai, and Judy Yang compiled and translated a selection of the poems and included them in their book Island, which juxtaposes the poems with historical accounts and documents that tell the immigration station’s story.

Here are a two examples of the translated wall poems (courtesy the Ancestors of the Americas’ online excerpt of Island):

The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to
live in a wooden building?

* * *

Because my house had bare walls, I began
rushing all about.
The waves are happy, laughing “Ha-ha!”
When I arrived on Island, I heard I was
forbidden to land.
I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.

These poems are powerful to me because of the way that one sees violent tension struggling to the surface beneath the almost lyrical quality of the poets’ surroundings.  In a way, they encapsulate the experience of being trapped into a cell in the middle of an island so lush that it’s now a designated a nature preserve.  The beauty of the world available outside the window belies, even betrays, the ugliness of the speakers’ experiences inside the detention center.  They are cut off, denied passage, hemmed in by human constructions (both physical and psychological). That the poems are also so different in tone also indicates the complex diversity of attitudes amongst the detainees: while the speaker of the first poem causes us to reenact the shock of his experience by dropping us smack into the cell after describing the “gentle breeze” of his hopes upon arrival, the speaker of the second poem draws us into a world in which everything — even the waves — are in collusion with the authorities.  The tone of the second poem explodes with angry energy, while the first is ironic and almost dryly detached at its end.

Continue reading “Poetry in History: The Angel Island Poems”

LR News: May 2010 Updates

Happy APIA Heritage Month!  Here is our first of the month news update:

May Community Calendar is Now Live

We’ve updated our community calendar page for May.  As always, we’d love to have your input in making our event coverage more accurate and thorough: leave a comment to suggest any additions and/or corrections.

APIA History Month on the LR Blog

During May, we’ll be running two blog series to celebrate National APIA Heritage Month.  The first, “Poetry in History,” will appear each Friday in lieu of our regular Editors’ Picks / Weekly Prompt posts, and will feature poems written during and/or about a particular period in Asian American History and an accompanying (linked) prompt.  Our “Process Portraits” series will begin during the second week of May, and will spotlight the work being done – and the history being made right now – by six young contemporary Asian American poets.  Finally, we’ll also be running interviews, book reviews, and occasional editorial posts during May that have to do with questions of historicity and historical engagement in Asian American poetry.

Issue 1 Submissions Period Closed

Thank you so much to those of you who submitted work during our very first reading period!  The Editors are currently making final decisions about what will go into the magazine, and if you haven’t heard back from us already, you should within the next few weeks.  If all goes as planned, Issue 1 will launch in early June.  Look out for an announcement about the exact launch date later this month.

Thanks once again for all of your continued support in reading and helping to promote the content we put on the LR Blog.  We could not run this gig without you!


Iris & Mia
LR Editorial Staff.