Friday Prompt: Hybrid Forms

LR Issue 5: "The Hybridity Issue" - Call for Submissions
Click to Submit to LR Issue 5

Now that the reading period for our first themed issue is open, we thought that our return to regular Friday Prompts would be a great opportunity to provide you with some  inspiration.  To that end, we’ll be setting aside this month’s prompts to illustrate just a few of the many approaches with which we believe the theme of “hybridity” could be interpreted.

This week, our focus is on form. Although there are many ways in which the formal structure of a poem could cause it to be classified as “hybrid,”  for today’s prompt, we’ve chosen to highlight two poems that make use of hybrid forms very differently: Kimiko Hahn’s villanelle “The Fever” (from The New Yorker), which mixes elements of free-verse with the constraints of a traditional formal structure, and Ching-In Chen’s poem “Fob” (from Tea Party), which blurs distinctions between “forms” from different genres by shaping itself around the structure and syntax of a dictionary definition.

In re-envisioning the villanelle, Hahn holds rhyme and meter loosely. Her use of slant rhymes (e.g. “color” / “fever”) and strategically varied refrains, and her light adherence to iambic meter allow her to engage the “rules” loosely enough that her language flits conversationally from line to line (clusters of Latinate words—themselves borrowed from the science section of the New York Times—as in, “damages the membrane of symbiotic algae,” help to make the stresses sufficiently “bumpy” so as to feel uncontrived), but she still holds onto enough of the form that as the poem rolls along, it stays—like a marble rattling through a chute—recognizably within the scaffold of a villanelle. The lyrical lilt that the form lends to the poem allows it to take on a twinge of ironic whimsy (given the gravitas of its overarching metaphor), while still retaining the appealingly confessional tone that is more frequently associated with free verse. As a result, the voice of the speaker comes across as sympathetically quirky, bemused, worldly—and we wholly buy the “leap” the poem takes when, by its end, we find that the speaker’s musings on coral reefs are merely a conceit by which to critique her own practices of self-ornamentation (“the ocean’s escalating fever” becomes “my ocean’s escalating fever”).

Ching-In Chen’s “Fob,” meanwhile, engages in a different kind of formal experimentation: it “borrows” the structure of a type of writing that falls entirely outside the genre of poetry. In appropriating the definition as a poetic form, Chen makes strategic use of the didactic—even alienating—editorial qualities that we associate with the dictionary’s language in order to frame and enact her ensuing critique of the relationship between structural and linguistic hegemonies.  Her “example sentences,” which extend the reader’s gaze beyond the bars of the “definition” text to offer startlingly intimate glimpses into an alternate, more evocatively “definitional” narrative, subvert the bland, instructional tone of the dictionary’s text, thus “fobbing” our expectations of the poem’s own conceit. Through her lyric interventions, Chen allows us to witnesses the complicity of teacher and dictionary—by their silence on the pejorative meaning of “fob”—in the racial bullying that the speaker experiences, and gives us access to her subsequent, delicious revenge, in which she tricks one of the bullies into thinking that, among other things, the Chinese word for “ugly” is actually the word for “pretty,” and that the term “ku-li” (coolie) is a flattering and desirable nickname.  In re-appropriating the dictionary’s syntactical patterns as a “form,” then, Chen successfully manages to turn the cultural and linguistic authority it represents against itself.

To read both poems in their entirety, click below:

“The Fever” by Kimiko Hahn
“Fob” by Ching-In Chen 

Prompt: write a poem that makes use of hybrid form, either by blending a traditional form with new and unusual elements from other verse traditions, or by appropriating the “formal” conventions of another style of writing or genre.

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The submissions period for Issue 5, “The Hybridity Issue,” will close on July 15th. Has this prompt inspired you to experiment with hybrid forms in your writing, or do you have previously unpublished work that explores the concept of “hybridity”?  Click here to submit.

Review: AALR, VOL. 2, ISSUE 1

The Asian American Literary Review | Volume 2, Issue 1 | Winter/Spring 2011

In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.

This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, and formal considerations. Reddy writes:

To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.

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Process Profile: Ching-In Chen Discusses “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California”

Ching In Chen (photo by Sarah Grant)

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic, a novel in verse.  She hearts street food, the zuihitsu & other “hijacked forms” and gets lost easily. Daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is a Kundiman, Macondo and Lambda Fellow. A community organizer, she has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston.  She is the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, forthcoming from South End Press in 2011. She can be found online at

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Ching-In discusses her poem “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California” which originally appeared in the 10.2 issue of Diagram.

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This poem began at a Ching Ming (grave-cleaning) ceremony for the Riverside Chinese who hadn’t been sent back to China and didn’t have descendants to take care of them.  I felt a chill — of history, ghosts, untold stories, communal energy — as we gathered to read the names of the dead.  The list also consisted of death causes, occupations, ages.  As the roll call continued on in my head, what became clear was how much I did not know about these people.  At the time, I was teaching sections for Creative Writing and we had to read Rick Moody’s “Boys,” in which he repeats the same sentence over and over, adding in different meanings by adding layers over the sentence.  This made sense to me for my Chinatown dead.

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Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 1

Morning in Denver from our hotel window

Waking up to bright sun and brisk, springy weather every morning was just one of the many small points of brilliance that characterized AWP for Mia and me this year.  Having just come off winter (we both live in places that are not known for their sunshine during the first few months of the year), it was a treat to look outside our hotel room in the morning and see sun, blue skies, and mountains in the distance.  Denver was beautiful.  Even the snow that had been forecast for Wednesday held off for us.  But not even the gorgeous weather or the lure of spring fever proved powerful enough to distract us from the activity going on inside the harshly-lit interior of the Convention Center this weekend.  When I say that it was a wonderful AWP, I really mean it.  After last year’s conference in Chicago (I met Nick Flynn!  I heard Sun Yung Shin read! Lan Samantha Chang complimented my sweater! Poetry played in the elevators all day!) I was prepared for this year to be pretty darn awesome.  But my experience this year totally blew me away.  Part of it was the fantastic panels and readings that I attended.  Part of it was the excitement of walking around the bookfair and getting to talk about LR and hand out our bookmarks and mini-books. Part of it was the great hotel, great food, and Mia’s great company (I’ll admit that we took at least one night off towards the end of the conference just to spend some catching up and discussing each other’s poems over styrofoam cups of Ramen).  But a large part of what made the experience so great was the amazing generosity of the people that we met there, and the passion with which we heard them speak of their work and their involvement with communities of other writers.

Over the course of the four days, Mia and I went to panels and readings galore and spent lots of time in the bookfair.  In this two-part series, we’ll be reflecting on just a few of our favorite events.  For my post, I’ll be focusing on one off-site reading and three panels/readings that I particularly enjoyed.  For more about our experience, look through our Flickr gallery of photos from the weekend, and check back here at the blog for Mia’s followup later this week.

Follow the jump below to read my reflections on the Kundiman/Cave Canem Joint Reading on Wednesday, Thursday’s Kundiman Panel, Friday’s From the Fishouse reading, and Saturday’s Split This Rock’s panel.

Continue reading “Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 1”

Staff Picks: Holiday Reading Recommendations

Whether you’ll be traveling or relaxing at home during the upcoming holidays, it’s a great time to polish off an old reading list or to start in on something new.  As our gift to you this season, and to help you get started on your own holiday reading list, we’ve asked members of the LR Staff to recommend some of their recent favorites.  Here are our suggestions.


Asylum | Quan Barry | University of Pittsburgh Press (2001)

Recommended by Mia: “My holiday reading pick . . . it’s her first collection.  Her engagement with the voices and subjects of the Vietnam War is beautifully executed, and though the scope of her work is much broader, I was most riveted by her ‘war’ poems.”

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Behind My Eyes |
Li-Young Lee | W.W. Norton & Company (2008)

Recommended by Iris: “This is Lee’s most recent collection — and it is stunning, as always.  Figurations of the Virgin Mary intertwine with moving landscapes, conversations between the poet and his wife, the transitory spaces of travel, a chance vision of the poet’s father; all hang in a delicate, almost sacred, lumen, suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.  Each poem breathes with an expansiveness and a grave tenderness that only Lee knows how to render. Behind My Eyes is sold with a CD of the poet reading some the poems in the book, and I highly recommend listening to this, as well.  I had the privilege of hearing Lee read from his drafts for this book a few years before it came out, and loved the way that the intonation of his voice seamed through the lines of each poem, threading them together in a low, sonorous hum.  It’s a beautiful listening experience, and adds a new and lovely textural dimension to his already melodious poetics.”

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Call Me Ishmael Tonight |
Agha Shahid Ali | W.W. Norton & Company (2003)

Recommended by Supriya: “This collection of ghazals shows the versatile ways in which a poetic form can go beyond its history and language while staying true to its essence. Agha Shahid Ali demonstrates the intentionality with which he overcomes expectations and boundaries by using a traditional form that often evokes feelings of longing and melancholia but writing in a contemporary English that feels timeless. Although written entirely in form, the range and depth of this collection allows for a vast expanse of emotions and possibilities and is the perfect collection with which to curl up whatever your mood.”

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A Gesture Life |
Chang-rae Lee | Penguin USA (2000)

Recommended by Ada: “Told from the point of view of Dr. Hata, a Japanese WWII veteran, this fictional memoir weaves between his experiences in a crumbling outpost of a Japanese imperial outpost in the last days of the war and his later life in gated, suburban America. The protagonist in Lee’s second novel is so reasonable it’s eerie, and though I think that we are meant to feel sorry for Dr. Hata and the stiffly respectable, appropriately understated life he has bound himself into, the distance that separates him from all the other characters in this book translates into distance from the reader. Not that the whole book left me cold: the scenes describing Dr. Hata’s encounters with Korean comfort women during the war are eye-opening, gripping, and an interesting perspective on the terrors of war.”

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Review: Ching-In Chen’s THE HEART’S TRAFFIC

The Hearts Traffic
The Heart's Traffic
The Heart’s Traffic by Ching-In Chen | Arktoi Books 2009 | $21.00

Ching-In Chen’s debut, The Heart’s Traffic, is an ideal beginning. The 117-page collection encompasses an amazing breadth of styles, including several distinct forms (e.g., sestina, villanelle, haibun, pantoum) as well as the poet’s own innovative arrangements. But beyond her technical prowess, this work resonates with me in its explorations of community and self, of the process of discovering where we do or do not belong through our simultaneous attempts to blend and resist multiple worlds and identities. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we all seek to reconcile our personal present with the collective past.

This novel-in-poems tells the tale of Xiaomei — her father’s then family’s move to America as well as her own process of exploration and discovery during and immediately after these transitions. Chen beautifully captures the conflicted relationship of immigrants with the land of their ancestors, with their loved ones, and with themselves. The narrative is nonlinear but linked, with images and lines weaving through multiple pieces. Together, the collection serves as a series of snapshots that only reveal glimmers of Xiaomei’s life. Chen skillfully arranges the collection to build toward a larger understanding of both Xiaomei’s experiences and what it means to be a young immigrant in America. I appreciated re-visiting certain poems and seeing multiple layers emerge as I moved through the overarching story.

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