Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

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!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

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.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

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.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

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. ”

Continue reading “Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010”

Review: INDIVISIBLE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN POETRY, Part 2

INDIVISIBLE

This is Part 2 of a two-part series about Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. You can find Part 1 here.

As the editors of Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry emphasize, there is no way to completely define or capture the South Asian American experience. Yet the politics of identity and language cannot be ignored. As Summi Kaipa, one of the editors, said, “Being South Asian and putting our voice out there is a very political act. What does it mean to do this anthology post-9/11 to get this chorus of voices out there to represent ourselves to defy the stereotypes that may be placed upon ourselves?” In the Introduction, the editors describe the ways in which language can be dangerous or misleading — the power of what is stated but also what is omitted.This suggests that what the contributers’ choose to write (or not write) has weight simply in their decision to do so. The politicalizations are not always intentional or obvious, but subtle insights about the evolving South Asian American identity can be found throughout the anthology.

All three of Sasha Kamini Parmasad’s pieces (“Burning”, “Sugarcane Farmer”, “The Old Man”) reflect this understated social commentary via observation. She uses striking visual imagery to paint the scene, allowing the reader to see what she sees and to draw their own conclusions. In “Burning”, the heat is almost tangible; Parmasad’s repeated images beat down like the sun, as demonstrated by the opening lines, “The twelve o’clock sun sizzles / like onions and garlic the grandmother pitches / into a black iron pot rubbed with butter. / Trees are stingy with their shade. / Moth-winged morning flowers wither on stems.” But we also see the people under that sun  — a young girl, her father, her grandmother — three generations all living in that heat. We see the grandmother cooking despite the heat, the father slaughtering a pig in the heat (“Drags it writhing / back to the slaughtery.— / Pig’s blood staining the macadam road forever), and the young girl witnessing it all. Parmasad is able to humanize the difficult and unchanging living conditions of the working class by showing how daily experiences continue despite the unbearable heat.

Continue reading “Review: INDIVISIBLE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN POETRY, Part 2”

LR News: July 2010 Updates

We’re a few days late in getting this July update posted, but it’s officially full-swing summer for us at LR, and we’ve been pleased as punch (flabbergasted, more accurately) at the response to Issue 1 so far!  Thank you so much to all of you who have helped to spread the word.

Here’s are some things that you can expect to see on the blog this month:

July Community Calendar UpdatedYour Feedback Wanted

This month, we’ve added two cities: Portland and San Antonio.  As always, we would love your help in posting any updates or additions: simply leave us a comment or send us an email.  Please note that we will be trying out a new policy: for this month, any updates to the calendar will be made on the 15th, so let us know of anything you want us to add before then.  We’d also like to have your feedback on another proposed change: hitherto, our goal has been to post each month’s new ComCal on the 1st of the month (or, in cases in which the 1st falls over a weekend, the Monday immediately following).  We’ve discovered that updating a few days after the first of the month makes it easier for us to compile a more detailed calendar (since most literary newsletters come out on the 1st of the month, and arts organizations tend to update their event calendars on the first or second).   Should we start putting up our Community Calendar updates on, say—the 3rd or 4th of the month—or do you think we would be better off sticking to our old plan?  Please leave us a comment to let us know what you think.

Summer Reads, Indivisible Series Continue

We’ve had lots of responses from our Issue 1 contributors, and so we’ll be continuing to post the summer reading lists they’ve sent to us periodically throughout July.  LR Staff Writer Supriya Misra will also be finishing up her two-part series about the Indivisible anthology, so look out for her post towards the end of the month.

LR Blog Staff Search

One of our goals for the next year is to grow our blog, which means that we will soon be looking to fill new positions on our team of staff writers! Please keep your eyes peeled: we’ll be putting up a post with details about how to apply very soon.

Review: INDIVISIBLE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN POETRY

INDIVISIBLE

Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry, edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam | The University of Arkansas Press 2010 | $24.95

Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry—the first anthology solely devoted to South Asian American poetry—features 49 poets and 141 poems from the newly emerging to the long-established, tracing their origins to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and spanning generations, cultures, and faiths. Released in April, the anthology is already making its mark, having at one point reached the #1 bestseller spot on Amazon for Asian American poetry. The editors and contributors have been doing readings and signings across the country, including a launch in San Francisco and a panel at this year’s AWP conference.

The anthology is edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam, three Bay Area poets who started the project in 2002. Initially designed as an initiative to collect community responses post-9/11, it soon expanded into a broader platform to express and reflect the complex and changing nature of South Asian American identities post-9/11. I spoke with Summi Kaipa, who explained that the title—taken from the Pledge of Allegiance—captures one of the tenets underlying the project: “how can we be a pluralistic society and get along and be unified at the same time.”

The editors were very intentional in the way they organized the collection, choosing not to categorize the contributors and pieces into specific genres or themes but instead to create a holistic experience in which the multiplicities of each new piece would lead into the next one. As Kaipa explained, the collection “capture[s] what the voice of South Asian identity is in the United States [along with] what the American experience is, what the experience is as a human being, you know, the universal experience.” And their vision is successful. What stands out are not common styles or recurring themes but the breadth and variation that exists amongst the poems, affirming that there is no single definition that quintessentializes the South Asian American experience.

The editors posit that while popular South Asian American literature continues to center around the more traditional immigrant narrative, South Asian American poetry allows for explorations of what it means to be a South Asian American in a more nuanced way. At a basic level, the forms engaged by the poets whose work is included in the anthology range from the traditional to the experimental, and are rooted in traditions from around the world. The anthology allows the reader to observe how the various styles that are being explored in American poetry are being reflected in South Asian writers. The only limitation, which the editors acknowledge, is that the anthology is not able to fully include the tremendous work being done in the spoken word and performance poetry realms.

The poems in the anthology explore a variety of themes, including the hazy nature of memory. Vandana Khanna confronts this in “Echo”, acknowledging the past is not always idyllic with her opening lines, “I cannot make it lovely, / this story of my father.” She suggests that stories are not always ours to tell: “You tell me over and over but I can’t write it: the same story, but I know we are leaving things out. Embellishing.” Ultimately, the poem accepts that we try to remember and share stories even if they are imprecise, and that we translate them into our time and place and language. In the last stanza, she writes, “You have left the spaces empty for me to add / in colors, the smells, to translate to English. / To translate into the present, into beautiful.”

The desire to relate to the unknown or imagined past is echoed in Vijay Seshadri’s four pieces (“The Disappearances”, “Elegy”, “The Dream I Didn’t Have”, “Memoir”), which all speak of absence in different ways. In “Elegy”, he opens with, “I’ve been asked to instruct you about the town you’ve gone to, / where I’ve never been” and in “Memoir”, he opens with, “Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life. / The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.” But his pieces also speak to a more poignant and personal loss. In “The Disappearances” he describes a world in which all living creatures have disappeared, suggesting that, for better or worse,  all we leave behind are our memories:

[…]

The myths are somewhere else, but here are the meanings,

and you have to breathe them in

until they burn your throat

and peck at your brain with their intoxicated teeth.

This is you as seen by them, from the corner of an eye

(was that they way you were always seen?)

This is you when the President died

(the day is bright and cold).

This is you poking a ground-wasps’ nest.

This is you at the doorway, unobserved,

while your aunts and uncles keen over the body.

This is your first river, your first planetarium, your first popsicle.

[…]

While these examples speak to a universality of experience, no one example can be completely representative of the book’s project. At the outset, the editors had no idea where the project would lead but, as Kaipa put it, “the cacophony was important regardless of what it was.” Yet what makes the anthology significant is the deft work of the editors, who patiently and skillfully selected a wealth of experiences and styles that underlie the very fabric of South Asian America. In the end, their arrangement of the anthology allows the reader to see the unifying harmonies that exist. This anthology is a brave and important first step, gathering and weaving together the voices that are both defining and re-defining what it means to be South Asian American today.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series about Indivisible.  Part 2 will appear in mid-July.

Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 2

To add to Iris’ reflections on our recent trip to Denver and this year’s AWP conference, here are a few additional thoughts, as well as some slightly more “reportorial” reflections on several of the panels that I most enjoyed.  As this was my first time at AWP, I anticipated feeling completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of panels, readings, and discussions going on at all hours of the day, ranging from the future of M.F.A. programs in the United States to the apparent (or perhaps not-so-apparent) war between “hybrid” and traditional aesthetics in contemporary poetry.  What I found, however, was that in the midst of these many conversations, a few distinctive threads began to emerge.  Central to each of these threads was the question of community: how communities form around shared cultural, national, or transnational consciousnesses; how communities develop through shared aesthetics and/or poetic sensibilities; how communities emerge out of a drive to engage similar ethical and/or political concerns.  My sense of poetry—or perhaps more accurately, my sense of those of us in the United States (and elsewhere!) who “do” poetry—as forming one large and vibrant community that extends across forms, aesthetics, cultural affiliations, and even national boundaries was deepened by all that I saw and heard while in Denver.  Thanks so much to all those who welcomed us into their community at AWP.

Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond: The Poetry of South Asian America
[Readings from Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry]

Several of the editors and poets of INDIVISIBLE celebrate its (very!) recent publication.

We were extremely lucky to attend this panel, which featured a stellar lineup of poets published in the brand new anthology of Asian American poetry Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010).  We were thrilled to learn that the anthology, the first of its kind, had literally just been published and, hot off the press, was ready for purchase at the AWP bookfair.  It was probably because of this that “Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond” felt a little like a release party: poets gathering to celebrate the publication of this groundbreaking new collection, some of the editors and authors meeting for the very first time, voices coming to life from freshly minted pages .  The presentation of this anthology featured readings by poets like Ravi Shankar and Monica Ferrell, to name just a few.  As mentioned in reviews of the collection, Indivisible showcases “emerging and established poets who can trace their ethnic heritages to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka,” and represents a truly impressive range of voices and aesthetic styles.  Keep an eye out for upcoming reviews!

Transnational Identities: Asian American Writers & Asia

Transnational Identities Panel Participants

Though not all the original panelists were able to make it, at this panel we heard writers David Mura, Wang Ping, and Ed Bok Lee offer their reflections on what it means to engage transnational Asian and Asian American prose/poetry as subjects with complex relationships to both Asia (ie. China, Japan, Korea) and the United States.  Each writer shared not only from their personal experience of navigating the terms of transnational selves, or American ethnic selves, but from their writing as well, which pointed to many of the same questions addressed in their presentations.  Toward the end of the session, we were especially grateful for the intimate feel of the panel as moderator Bao Phi encouraged audience members to actively participate in constructing a conversation around the questions of what it means to be Asian and/or Asian American, and how to explore the linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural complexities of this transnational identity… not to mention this transnational literary identity.

Before, After, Under, Over, Inside, and Beyond the Anti-War Poem

Easily one of my favorite panels at AWP this year, this discussion of the “Anti-War Poem” was moderated by Fred Marchant and featured poets Brenda Hillman, Nick Flynn, and Shanee Stepakoff, each of whom chose a different preposition (“inside,” “under,” “before,” or “after”), which they used to focus their reflections on the anti-war poem.  Their high level of engagement—artistically, personally, and professionally—in examining issues of violence, torture, and the wide-ranging effects of the American war on terror led me to reconsider the role of the contemporary poet in what I now understand to be an America-at-war.  Nick Flynn in particular drove home the point that because we are now writing in a nation at war, we are all writing war poems, whether we are aware of it or not, and are all affected by our country’s involvement in international warfare.  What I most appreciated was the breadth of the conversation that took place at this panel; in addition to discussing the larger trends and exigencies of anti-war poetry today, the panelists also took time to reflect on salient features of their craft: techniques of redaction, the use of repetition and ordering in the amplification of found texts (ie. courtroom transcripts and the narratives of torture victims), the ethics of using testimonials and court transcripts as the raw material for poetry.