We’re excited to announce that we have a guest post up on the American Bookbinders Museum’s blog this afternoon. LR editor Iris writes about the history of the chapbook and its importance to the modern poetry scene and describes four chapbooks by some of the poets who are featured in our ongoing collaboration with the museum for National Poetry Month:
Click on over to read about Monica Mody’s Travel and Risk, Barbara Jane Reyes’s For the City that Nearly Broke Me, Candy Shue’s You Know Where You’ve Been By Where You End Up, and Debbie Yee’s Handmade Rabbit Society, and please don’t forget to stop by the museum tomorrow night (Thursday, April 21st), where we’ll be taking over their Third Thursday event series with more work by Monica, Barbara, Candy, Debbie, Jason Bayani, and Brynn Saito. You’ll get the chance to view pieces that each poet read last Saturday, to respond in writing, and to construct and bind a mini chapbook of your own to take home.
For more information, please see the Facebook page for the event as well as our previous blog post that describes our collaboration with the museum in more detail. And if you’re enjoying our focus on the chapbook, stay tuned for a dual interview about the chapbook with poets Margaret Rhee and Chen Chen next week. There’s plenty of goodness still to come before National Poetry Month is up!
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Barbara Jane Reyes.
First, get that “I am APIA” identity poem, that “Yellow Power,” “Brown Power,” “Brown and Proud” poem out of your system. I wholeheartedly believe that we all need to write one (or two, or a few) of these at some point in our development as writers, especially in this American context, where we are described as “minority,” or “alien,” or worse things. Such mis-labelings are assaults upon our humanness. Now, oftentimes, as an initial phase of our political education, to defend ourselves against what we can rightfully view as attack—i.e. “what are you,” “you’re not from here,” “you don’t belong here”—we assume a defensive posture. We respond in defiance; we unleash the righteous anger.
Do not let go of that anger. Do not let anyone tell you that anger is not valid, not useful, not civilized, that it has no place in Poetry.
Salman Rushdie once said, “We are described into corners and then we must describe ourselves out of corners,” this little snippet of a quote that’s stayed with me for a long time.
Being described into corners is surely reason to be angry. And so how can we describe our way out of corners?
Minding the “Ethnic” “Artifact” in Our Work
“Artifact,” may not be the best word, because it implies stasis, but let’s go with this for now.
I am interested in the ways we describe ourselves into our own corners.
Something I recently blogged:
It’s not about the presence of the ethnic artifact in our work. It’s never been about the presence of the ethnic artifact in our work. It’s always been about what we are doing with the ethnic artifact, why and how we are doing what we are doing with the ethnic artifact.
What is the ethnic artifact in our work—not just objects (the Balul, the barrel man, and hanging on the wall of your parents’ home, above the Santo Niño on the altar, the gigantic narra wood spoon and fork, the gigantic narra wood tinikling dancers), but also language, food, customs, rituals.
Are you writing a grandmother/Lola poem because you feel like you have to? Why do you feel like you have to? What are you writing about your grandmother? How? Why? And are you handling her voice and narratives properly? Are you doing her voice and narratives justice? Are you exploring the complex layers of her voice and narratives, are you moving towards some insights you hadn’t previously considered, about her as a woman, a mother, a wife, her attitudes, her awareness, her agency? Her ambivalences? Her faith, her sadness, her will? Her humanity? Her testimony?
Is she telling the “truth”? Is she “lying”? Is she “omitting”? What and why?
And as you are engaged in this hard work, are you minding the borders of sentimentality? How close are you? Or are you rehashing everyone else’s Lola story, not digging deep enough, or are you going full maudlin, effectively turning her into a stereotype? Or are you sticking to the expected abstracts, Lolas as martyr, Lola as survivor (Of what? How? What are some ethical and moral questions we can employ here, as we discuss her agency?), Lola as symbol of strength, Lola as embodiment of tradition, Lola as symbol of generosity, love for Lola as expression of cultural pride?
You are not doing your Lola justice by resorting to the sentimental, generic, the hackneyed, overused trope. Your writing is objectifying your Lola.
So then, it has to do with the kind of hard work we are willing and able to do as writers, crafting narratives that flesh out the humanity of a character or persona in all its awesome contradiction and intricacy, versus churning out a fast, cheap, and easy McStory or McPoem … as a way of placating our constituents. The hard work is in the language—precision, specificity, and it is in how deep you dig into your own imagination (yes, imagine that, using our imagination), how much you can challenge and push your own imagination, as you listen to her tell her own story, or challenge and push your own memory. What other hard questions are we asking ourselves to push these narratives further, into something well considered, carefully crafted, original, interesting, specific?
What is at stake? What are the larger implications of the narrative?
So then, this is not a strict “prompt,” but rather, some lines of questioning I hope are helpful in unraveling the “ethnic” space we occupy, in many cases, with ambivalence. By all means, write about your families. Write your family histories. Write your family recipes. But be mindful of your lenses. Home in, scale back, position yourself at different angles. How are you looking?
An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow, she received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University. She is an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, where she teaches Filipino/a Literature in Diaspora, and Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature. She has also taught Filipino American Literature at San Francisco State University, and graduate poetry workshop at Mills College, and currently serves on the board of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA). She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland, where she is co-editor of Doveglion Press.
These days, my life is very full. Of work, of editing, of coding, of teaching, of conversing and community-building, and—for the first time—of writing and thinking and speaking about not just about my work as an editor, but also about my own poetry, its context in the world, how I see it in conversation with broader discourses.
My first chapbook, Periodicity, is being published in February. I’ve been living in a bit of a fugue state since July, when my publisher first relayed the good news to me. Everything has been heady and surreal; suddenly, a wealth opportunities have been given to me to talk about my work, my writing, my personal literary interests. My evenings have been filled with logistics and correspondence: I’ve been gathering addresses for mailing lists, maintaining a Facebook page, conversing with friends and family about what a chapbook is, negotiating shipping refunds, designing promotional materials, scheduling interviews and reviews, and writing reams and reams of heartfelt thank-you notes. But in the midst of it all, I’ve found, somewhat disconcertingly, that I have had very little time, opportunity (or even physical energy) to write new poems.
I’m going to be honest here: I haven’t completed a full first draft of a poem in more than three months. I’ve written a few sketches here and there, most of which I’ve later thrown away. I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to make inroads on revising drafts from this summer. But since finishing the final revision of my chapbook manuscript in early August, I haven’t been able to write so much as a stanza. Every time someone congratulates me on the chap, I brace myself for the usual follow-up question: so what are you working on now?
In my California, we know how to party. We Black Panther Party. We 2PAC and Dre. We Dime a Day, we Dollar a Dance. We Fillmore jazz. We Summer of Love. We Barbary Coast. We I-Hotel. We Chinatown. We North Beach howl.
In my California, we no Baywatch babe. We East Los, we South Central LA. We Rodney King video. We campesino. We mighty Sacramento River. Rooted deep sequoia giants, we lovin’ the wind, we kissin’ the sky.
(from “My California” 34)
I met up with Barbara Jane Reyes at Shooting Star Cafe in Oakland Chinatown to chat about her new chapbook For The City That Nearly Broke Me. The project started with a writing prompt: write about a city that saved you, then write about a city that broke you. As Barbara began to think about what it would mean “to be broken by a city,” she decided to approach it by writing about places that “were the most emotionally complicated for me.” The chapbook hovers over and between Manila (“my birthplace but not necessarily my home”) and Oakland, where she has been living for the past decade but is not sure she can claim as her own.
I resonated with what Barbara had to say regarding the internal conflict inherent in claiming place and claiming home. Many immigrants and children of immigrants struggle with a similar tension; our birthplaces (or our parents’ birthplaces), with their histories of colonization, are now tourist destinations, and both the industry of tourism and the good intentions of our families make it difficult for us to “forge a connection” with these places. In Barbara’s case, her “attempts to go deeper are thwarted” by the gaze of the tourist as well as by her own family, who implies that there are things about Manila she might not be able to handle, that “there is only so much we want you to see.”
The title poem of the chapbook has 17 parts, #3 of which, “Junto al Pasig,” references a José Rizal poem and talks about the Pasig River. Barbara spoke about the Pasig as a river that gives itsname to the Filipino people, but a river that is also environmentally dead. Many squatter communities now make their homes around this dead river. Barbara’s “Junto al Pasig” illustrates the sacred decay of the river with a juxtaposition of two “streams,” in a sense; one of “giardia,” “DDT” and “blooming cholera” and another of divine incantation and “divina aurora” (5).
This month, in preparation for Issue 5: “The Hybridity Issue,” we’ve dedicated our Friday Prompts to exploring how collage, mixing and hybridization can be meaningful (and generative) practices for poets interested in exploring the narratives and critical concerns of the Asian American community.. Thus far, we’ve looked at hybrid form and mixed media; today we’ll be talking about hybridized language.
In contemporary poetry, quirky mixtures of the high and low, archaic and contemporary, and the scientific and colloquial are so common that we’re no longer surprised when a writer quotes a religious text–the Bible, for instance–and then, without skipping a beat, relays the one-liner they heard while waiting for an oil change. This kind of modulation, frequently used for ironic or comedic effect, can also be deployed for more serious purposes–and, I suspect, is a mode we’ve come to embrace because miscegenated language reflects our cultural moment in a way that elegant, seamlessly constructed prose does not. Just Google “best place to get tacos” or “Jeremy Lin is awesome” and see what comes up.
For many Asian American poets, however, linguistic hybridity is more than just an intellectual exercise. Many of us are multilingual, or come from families whose histories are told in multiple tongues (two, at least, and sometimes more–I’m thinking here of Korean-Brazilian writer Larissa Min, who writes in the linguistic spaces between Portuguese, English and Korean). And even if our tongues aren’t split by language, the idea of linguistic difference–our grandparents’ English versus our own, our professors’ English versus our aunties’–is important for more than theoretical reasons. It’s freighted with cultural, and thus, emotional weight. Our split tongues matter–even if, as is the case for me, a fourth-generation Japanese American, our “mother tongue” is little more than a myth, a conspicuous silence that, in its marked absence, tells us something about our history. Continue reading “Friday Prompt: Working With Hybrid Language”→
In his review of Bao Phi’s book, which we posted yesterday, guest contributor Greg Choy made some particularly intriguing observations about shifting trends in Asian American poetry, especially with regards to its relationship with community-based activism. The discussion about how best to engage with politics (and specifically, about whether to engage with identitarian politics) in our work is broad and ongoing, and in light of that, I thought I would follow up on Prof. Choy’s thoughts by pointing you towards a few insightful write-ups that provide additional perspectives on the matter.
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1. “CON-VERSE-SATIONS” (Hyphen Magazine Roundtable with Timothy Yu, Victoria Chang, and Nick Carbo)
I appreciate the thoughtful dialogue to be had in this article with regard to Asian American poetry’s stylistic diversity, its audiences, its status both inside and outside of academia, and its current relationship to its activist roots. In particular, I think Tim Yu makes a spot-on observation that while, in the wave that immediately followed the 70’s, poets were more interested in the confessional mode than in political rhetoric, poets are now coming back towards the political, some through the overt expression of activist “creeds,” as is true in the spoken word scene, and others more quietly, by infusing their approaches to craft and subject matter with strong political undertones (Yu points to Ken Chen as an example of one such poet). “We’ve had two decades of Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin and these writers who really risk prominence writing about their own personal experience,” he says, but “that’s not where we are anymore.” His claim is exemplified by the list of recommended titles the editors provide at the end of the article: from Cathy Park Hong to Barbara Jane Reyes to Ronaldo V. Wilson, the body of contemporary Asian American poets who are again engaging with the political (particularly through experimental forms) is strong, and seems to be growing.
When the AAWW announced the winners of its 2011 Asian American Literary Awards last month, we were thrilled to hear that Issue 3 contributor Oliver de la Paz’s Requiem for the Orchard had been named 1st finalist in the poetry category (after Kimiko Hahn, who won for Toxic Flora, and before Molly Gaudry, who was named 2nd finalist for We Take Me Apart). But Oliver is not the only one of our friends and contributors who has had exciting news this season. Here some recent publications and releases that have shown up on our radar these past few months:
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Marc Vincenz’s The Propaganda Factory (Argotist EBooks 2011)
Contributor Marc Vincenz’s new e-book The Propaganda Factorywas released by Argotist EBooks this past August. In this short collection (which includes “Taishan Mountain,” a poem that first appeared in LR issue 2), Marc weaves together layers of history and geography through an ever-shifting range of lenses that take us from the level of the microscopic to the realm of the galactic at a moment’s notice. It is available for download here.
Kim Koga’s ligature strain (TinFish Press 2011)
Issue 3 contributor Kim Koga now has a chapbook (ligature strain) out with TinFish. In this linked sequence, which was published as #6 in TinFish’s current retro chap series, Kim floods the page and the mind’s eye with feverish, liquidly intense imagery that involves birth, echolocation, pink and white flesh, and lots of fetal beavers (yes, the actual animal). Be on the lookout for more about ligature strain later this month.
For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Barbara Jane Reyes discusses her piece “13. Black Jesus” [an excerpt of her longer project “The City That Nearly Broke Me”], which appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.
He emerged in my “For the City That Nearly Broke Me” series, which I started writing after this prompt: “Write about the city that saved you. Write about one that nearly broke you.” Rachelle Cruz posted this prompt on her blog while she was a PEN Emerging Voices fellow.
I’ve never excavated Manila, my birthplace; it eludes my understanding, it’s always spitting me out. That’s how I see it, and so I wanted to find a thwart-proof way in.
There is a general disdain Filipinos have for dark skin; we claim those precious few drops of Spanish blood. In this desire for whiteness, it’s ignored that much Spanish blood entered the Filipino via colonial rape.
The term “Buffalo Solider” has been around since the 1860’s, and refers to US cavalry and infantry regiments of African American soldiers. There are legends about the term’s origin, but I can’t get over the historical significance of African American men as animals. Moreover, these Buffalo Soldiers fought against Native Americans in the “Indian Wars,” and against the Filipinos in the Philippine American War. People of color pitted against one another in America’s formative wars of conquest. Some defected from the US military, became Katipunan/Philippine freedom fighters, as “posters and leaflets addressed to ‘The Colored American Soldier’ described the lynching and discrimination against Blacks in the US and discouraged them from being the instrument of their white masters’ ambitions to oppress another ‘people of color’.”
And of course, “Buffalo Soldier” is a Bob Marley song, whose form the poem borrows. It’s a narrative of transnational displacement, an anthem of survival and resistance:
And he was taken from Africa,
brought to America.
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
Say it was a buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta.
Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America.
It’s all of these displacements and reorientations that have allowed me to start the excavation.
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Excerpt from “13. Black Jesus”
After Bob Marley
The indio who carved me knew the drum and the heart are one.
He knew the song for hunting, the waiting song, the calling song.
He knew the song for planting, the song of earth’s open hand.
He knew the song for walking, the river water song.
Buffalo Soldier, Carabao Brother,
Stolen from the Americas, brought to the islands,
Sharpening machete, crouching in the jungle,
Born into slavery, son of revolution.
Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on. This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition. In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)
Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays. I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!
From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”
Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career. He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”
Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness. The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating. He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose. But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”
Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes | BOA Editions 2010 | $16
In Poeta in San Francisco, Barbara Jane Reyes’ previous book, diwata was someone “elders say” had once “walked on earth” before the “the nailed god came” (30). These are the traces and rumors from which the titular Diwata of her latest book is resurrected. Then, like slippery oral art, like slips of the tongue, creation stories about men, women, and diwata—a god or spirit in Philippine mythology—are made up and told again and again. The poems in Diwata draw also on, and retell, Judeo-Christian creation narratives, introduced and enforced in the Philippines by the Spanish colonial regime. These retellings of myths and folk tales become a modality through which ahistory is rendered into history, history itself is investigated, and variations of diwatas, their quarries, and their hunters are revealed as inhabiting multiple narrative, linguistic, and cultural sites.
A globe our size, where migrations, displacements, and diasporas have become fairly common, and networked space-time has become a given for its globalized areas, is increasingly in need of transnational, translingual, transcultural mythologies. Diwata is one such transmission, in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. While most poems in the book take the form of story, it also has songs, couplets, pantoums that pick up the motifs of repetition and variation, creating a sinuous overlapping sonic rhythm.
Diwata inhabits many temporalities: it goes back in time before time and to the pre-colonial time and the colonial time; it stays in once upon a time and also strays in the present. By de-colonizing time from its linear, industrial, western model, it recuperates and liberates mythic, folkloric, and indigenous entities historically demonized and suppressed by the Catholic church and the Spanish colonial administration. The deep time of myth and folklore in Diwata is not static; rather, it is like static, a kind of oracular interference that sharpens the reader’s awareness of acts of wounding as well as acts of resistance performed during Philippines’ colonization, first by Spain and then by the USA.