Panax Ginseng: A Crisis of Universal Utterance

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.

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photo of mug, poem, & smokes courtesy of Rachel Richardson

Photo of mug, poem, & smokes
Courtesy of Rachel Richardson

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The title here is taken from a phrase by Laura (Riding) Jackson, from one of her prose writings after she abjured a successful career in poetry. I’ve been contending personally with her claims against poetry since the publication of my first chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe Press 2012). Jackson makes the case for a language with intrinsic truth-value as a pure means of expression, free from sliding signifiers, free especially from the generic constraints of literary form. She argues that poetry is a medium for accepting the “good enough” under the illusion of a truth that is ultimately inexpressible. This illusion is consummated by the aesthetic gesture, providing, at best, a sense of formal completeness. Poetry, then, is a closed circuit, which never stretches outward to communicate truth or to connect truly through words. In her essay “What, If Not A Poem, Poems?” Jackson writes:

A poem emits something that delights, seeming truth-like. But one learns, at long poetic last, that the poem cannot yield truth itself, truth unqualified: it is too much committed to yielding the semblance to be capable of yielding the pure reality. This, it is hard for the poet to know, for, though the poet perceive that, here and there, truth did not get its full due, such perceptions would lose themselves in the growing satisfaction felt in the coming to be of that extraordinary thing, a poem.

To put this another way, when Yusef Komunyakaa was once asked what sentimentality was, he answered: “Passion without form.” Jackson wants to champion this passion and not the form. Let me rephrase this once more. Toi Derricotte has said that her writing process is the transmutation of an inner storm into an outer object—like a mug—which she can then place on the shelf. Again, the well-wrought form, its source in reality become a regardless matter. The poems I wrote for Paradise Hunger followed a series of family funerals, emerging from what I felt was a sacred process of grief, loneliness, and self-definition. The process came from a “crisis of universal utterance,” a groping in language toward some manner of truth, understanding, consummation. But what I ended up with instead was just a form, an object in my hands. An object for the shelf, yes, but also an object for sale, a suddenly profane thing.

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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.

Friends & Neighbors: Rounding Out 2011

Here are a few exciting tidbits of news from the LR community to round out our last day of posts before hiatus (which takes effect tonight, along with the submissions deadline for Issue 4!  Don’t forget to send your work in—the system will be open until 11:59 pm EST).

Videopoem for Kenji C. Liu’s “A Son Writes Back”

LR contributor Kenji C. Liu sent us a link to this awesome video he created for his poem “A Son Writes Back” (the most recent version of which appeared in Issue 2). The video combines an audio performance of Kenji’s poem with musical accompaniment by Jason Jong.  According to its caption on Vimeo, the visuals in the piece are footage from “a US Air Force propaganda film portraying aerial attacks on Imperial Japan during World War II.”  Watch the embedded version below, or follow the links beneath it to watch on Vimeo.

(A Son Writes Back – Poetry by Kenji C. Liu – Kou Xiang by Jason Jong from Kenji Liu on Vimeo).

W. Todd Kaneko Featured by the Los Angeles Review

Not only does Issue 3 contributor W. Todd Kaneko’s work appear in the 10th issue of the Los Angeles Review, but the magazine recently featured his poem “Remembering Minidoka” online as one of the issue’s “highlights”!  To read the piece, click here.  Many congrats to Todd on this honor.

Bao Phi’s Sông I Sing Reviewed in the New York Times

The heading says it all: Bao Phi’s collection, which Greg Choy reviewed for us last week, has been reviewed (and highly praised), by The New York Times.  Our congratulations to Bao on these well-deserved accolades.

Melissa R. Sipin responds to Kimiko Hahn

Issue 3 contributor Melissa R. Sipin was inspired enough by Wendy’s interview with Kimiko Hahn (and by the APR interview that Wendy references) that she wrote a poem in response!  She’s shared it on her blog.  Thanks, Melissa, for your thoughtful engagement with Kimiko’s words!

A Conversation with Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn, by Nancy Bareis

Kimiko Hahn is the author of eight books of poems, including: Earshot (Hanging Loose Press, 1992), which was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award; The Unbearable Heart (Kaya, 1996), which received an American Book Award; The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton, 2006) a collection that takes its title from Basho’s famous poetic journal; and Toxic Flora, poems inspired by science (W.W. Norton, 2010). As part of her service to the CUNY community, she helped initiate a Chapbook Festival that has become an annual event; since then she has published the chapbooks, Ragged Evidence and A Field Guide to the Intractable. Hahn has also written text for film, such as the 1995 MTV special, Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She-Thing; also, the text for Everywhere at Once, a film based on Peter Lindbergh’s still photos and narrated by Jeanne Moreau. Honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, PEN/Voelcker Award, Shelley Memorial Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught in graduate programs at the University of Houston and New York University, and of course, in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York where she is a distinguished professor; also for literary organizations such as the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem and Kundiman. Among her current projects: a collaborative translation of Japanese zuihitsu and new sequences triggered primarily by neuroscience.

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TOXIC FLORA

LR: In the latest issue of The American Poetry Review featuring 13 of your new poems triggered by articles on science, you speak of the power of lists and the poetic momentum that can be generated by them in the context of individual poems. In Toxic Flora as a whole, how did you maintain a sense of urgency and intensity while using the same kind of source material (NYT science articles) for each piece?

KH: These poems are from a new manuscript that I began late summer of 2009 [i.e. not Toxic Flora]. I was preparing the Toxic Flora manuscript for publication and thinking that I was finished with science—but suddenly realized that science, at least the exotic language and realm, was not finished with me. I returned to several articles in the Science section of The New York Times and gave myself the assignments as described in APR.

Over ten years ago I wrote a sequence based on various articles (i.e., from [the] Science section of The New York Times). I soon had so many poems that I realized it could become a whole collection. So I kept writing—maybe over a hundred—and at a certain point began seriously revising. Then while compiling a manuscript, [I] began seriously cutting poems that were too weak. I have described the particular process in a W.W. Norton online column: “A Poet and Her Editor”.

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Weekly Prompt: Ordering, Reordering, Reversing.

Ordered Stones
Sea Stones: Ordered, Reordered, Reversed

As I’ve been working on coding, laying out, and putting together Issue 3 (which in many ways has proven to be a much more technically challenging endeavor than our previous two issues), the question of order/ordering has continually been at the forefront of my mind. How important decisions about order are when presenting a group of poems, or images! Juxtaposition means everything: placing even one small poem strategically can entirely change and elevate the overall energy of an issue, an anthology, a collection. And (to apply this thought to the level of craft) how much more so with regards to the arrangement of lines, images, stanzas, within each poem itself! At this year’s Kundiman retreat, Oliver de la Paz showed me how the placement of a single poem within a manuscript would affect the impact with which certain images in it would be perceived by a reader—and that revising with attention to order, both on a inter-poem and intra-poem level, was therefore very necessary. And during workshop, Kimiko Hahn suggested that one of the Fellows try reversing the order of the lines in her poem, a simple change that which—when applied, completely reshaped its arc, and brought the whole piece alive in a new and fascinating way.

Of course, reversing the order of a poem’s lines does not work the same magic in every case—it worked on the poem that we were discussing because it allowed the strange linguistic impulses of the final lines to speak better and thus made the arc of the new version much less tidy and more texturally interesting. But the results of this simple revision exercise got me thinking about how to apply it to my own writing. How many times have I shuffled and reordered stanzas in a poem that feels stuck, only to find that the arc of the poem was still either falling flat? Oftentimes, my last thoughts as I draft a poem may be some of the most complex, the most evocative, and so reversing a poem, image by image, or even line by line, could be a very useful way to at least read the images in the draft from a different angle, and thus to reenter the revision process on a fresh foot.

Today’s prompt is an example of more shameless, deliberate “stealing” from the advice of teachers whom I admire.

Prompt: Take a poem whose arc or movement feels “stuck” and reverse the order of the images or lines as way to re-envision the “map” of the poem.  Alternately, if you are working on a manuscript, try reversing or changing the order of poems, or experimenting with reversing lines within the opening and closing poems to see whether the impact of this reordering reveals anything new and luminous.

Event Coverage: Kundiman Retreat 2011

2011 Kundiman Faculty Jon Pineda, Kimiko Hahn, and Karen An-hwei Lee
2011 Kundiman Faculty Jon Pineda, Kimiko Hahn, and Karen An-hwei Lee

From June 15th-19th, two Lantern Review staff members (Editor Iris A. Law and Staff Writer Henry W. Leung) attended the 2011 Kundiman Poetry Retreat at Fordham University in New York City.  What follows are our reflections on our experiences there.

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I. Iris

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of a D train in the Bronx and trundled my suitcase up the hill toward my very first Kundiman Retreat. Fordham Road greeted me with its jumble and racket: taxis honked their way down the street; motorcycles revved; teenagers laughed over the tinkling of a Mr. Softee van; shop owners shouted from behind racks of merchandise that spilled colorfully onto the sidewalk; a child descended uneasily from a bus and promptly vomited on the pavement. It felt strange to enter the gated, manicured space of the Rose Hill campus—ostrich-like; irresponsible, almost. But once swaddled into this beautifully (even eerily) verdant setting, it was also difficult not to feel that this was a space that in some way enacted the purpose of Kundiman: a place in which the creative soul could clear space within itself so that new patches of greenness could be sown and take root—not in isolation from the world, but in juxtaposition with, and in the context of, the world. I was reminded of something that I’d read in an interview Sarah Gambito gave to The Fordham Observer. In order to write in New York, she remarks, she tries “to be as still as [she] can in the city.” Indeed, to be a writer is to live in a position of simultaneous privilege and responsibility. As participants in social communities, we hold a responsibility to live fully in the world, so that we can write into, for, and from those communities. But at the same time, the work of the writer cannot be completed without the ability to occasionally take a step back: to be a still, small, open receptacle to the world, but a simultaneous processor of that world. And the lens with which we process—with which we must enact our craft—requires, from time to time, the ability to allow ourselves space to wrestle with the work itself, and with the world surrounding the work.

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Weekly Prompt: “Stealing”

On the subject of "stealing" poems from the observed world: a "steal-worthy" orthographical variation? (Bag reads "Roos Beep").

Today’s exercise is less of a prompt and more of a practice, but having just returned from the 2011 Kundiman retreat—at which Oliver de la Paz announced on the first day that he fully intended to “steal” from each of us, and where Kimiko Hahn shared a lovely collaborative variation of a “stealing” exercise during my final workshop of the weekend—I wanted to continue the chain and extend the same thought to you.

Perhaps the term “stealing” is a bit harsh-sounding—”recycling,” “quoting,” or “riffing” might be more a more genteel way to put it, since what it involves is not outright plagiarism, so much as a process of exploring new avenues through “sampling” and strategic mimicry—but somehow it still feels apropos, as the delightful discovery and surprise that occurs when one takes something that one admires and puts it into a different context, tinkers with it, uses it as a launching pad or a frame, embeds it, or layers it with one’s own work, does in part come from the feeling that one is doing something utterly subversive.  Socially and culturally, we tend to envision the artist as a lonely figure who operates entirely self-sufficiently—the work, and its every element, must come out of her head and her head alone.  But in fact, in our daily lives as artists, we are engaged in a perpetual process of “stealing”: we observe things in the world around us—the quality of light on a bedspread, the deep crease in a parent’s forehead, the conversation between a pair of girls at a nearby table, the color of a house, what the host is saying on TV, the sound a cash register makes when it opens, the texture of a wall at the train station, the funny taste of food when one is sick, a joke that fell flat at a party—we process them, we file them away, and these things which we file away filter themselves, eventually, into our creative work.

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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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Becoming Realer: Making Fungus

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

Painting by Marissa Trierweiler

Workshop has become my favorite class. Maybe because I genuinely enjoy reading other people’s work and sharing my own. Maybe because the literary critic in me likes playing with the writer, or maybe it’s because on day one, my new piece, “The Red Frame,” caused some controversy. There’s nothing like starting off by making waves! 

The piece begins:

What is my life concept? What is my story?

I need a new frame, but I don’t know the old frame.

Two students got into an argument about who the audience of the piece was, why it provided no answers, and what was going on in general. Two students argued, but the class itself was split in their views pretty evenly down the middle: one camp loved it, the other was confused. To the people who asked who the audience is and what the conclusion, or the answer, was, I didn’t respond because it doesn’t matter what my answer may be. It’s about their answers, and their answers were all valid. The piece is schizophrenic. It’s disjunctive. It wants to be dark and dwell on its darkness. It is, and I say this as objectively as possible, beautiful. Ultimately though, it is whatever the reader wants it to be. I come from the school of the Language poets . The point is to play with conventional literary structures, language and ideas to find out what the reader brings to the table.

Our instructor told me that she thinks what was really going on in workshop was that the students were discovering what was essential for them in their own writing. It’s a great question: what is essential for you in writing?

For me, it’s structure and imagination. Structure because organization is essential for framing the theme, and imagination makes it beautiful. Both create a worldview.

In college, I spent a good deal of time searching for a form that felt both: natural and imaginative, lyrical and concise, fragmented yet whole. I love essays but couldn’t find an organizing principle to make them work. I like prose poems, but thought them too suppressive at the time. I wanted to sprawl and sing across the page! Sonnets, villanelles, and iambic pentameter are all great… when written by other people. Let’s face it, I’m lazy. I’m also tone deaf. But most importantly, I needed a form that was dialectical, not just in its content, but in its very structure. I wanted organization to mirror self-expression, which required a form that uses dialogue, process and contradiction.

Why contradiction? Why dialectics? As political Asian Americans, we cringe at the East vs. West binary because our very existence (as Asian Americans) contains both. It’s an old, false construct, and yet, as a Korean adoptee, nothing else encompasses my lived experiences. By “lived experiences,” I mean the dichotomy of being born in Pusan and being raised as a white American, being told I’ve been chosen by my family and being told I’ve been given up by my family, or being told how much I am loved because one set of parents wants me so much they won’t let me go and being told how much I am loved because one set of parents loved me so much that they let me go. What sort of form allows such paradoxes to be beautiful and not messy? What sort of form allows such paradoxes to be messy and still beautiful?

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