Turning “Chinese Silence” on Its Head: A Conversation with Timothy Yu

TImothy Yu and 100 CHINESE SILENCES
Timothy Yu and the cover of his book 100 CHINESE SILENCES. (Photo of Yu by Margarita Corporan)

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we interviewed leading scholar and poet Timothy Yu, author of 100 Chinese Silences (Les Figues Press, 2015), Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford, 2009), and the three chapbooks 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish Press, 2012), Journey to the West (Barrow Street, 2006), and Kiss the Stranger (Corollary Press, 2012). Yu is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he spoke with us, among other things, about the need for greater historical contextualization of Asian American poetry, the process of writing 100 Chinese Silences, and the vibrant relationship between his creative and scholarly work.

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LANTERN REVIEW: Within the literary and academic world, you function in a variety of roles. What’s it like to wear so many different hats? We’re especially curious about the ways in which these roles (poet, cultural critic, scholar, teacher, editor, etc.) overlap, or if there are times when you find them in tension with one another.

TIMOTHY YU: I’ve always written poetry, but for a long time my identity as a poet was peripheral to my professional identity as a scholar. I did a PhD in literature, not an MFA, and until pretty recently I never really published much of my poetry. There’s a lot I could say about this, but I think that it was my scholarly training, and in particular my study of Asian American poetry, that gave me a greater sense of confidence in my work, and ultimately a clearer sense of what I wanted my poetry to do.

But it was definitely a struggle along the way sometimes. In grad school, although quite a few of my classmates were also creative writers, there was an old-school sense among faculty that being a creative writer was not compatible with the “serious” identity of scholar. I kept my poetry going largely by finding a community outside of the university—I went to readings, joined a writing group, sometimes took creative writing workshops elsewhere during the summers.  

It’s really only in the past few years that my roles as poet and scholar/critic have begun to converge. A lot of that has to do with my finding a community of other Asian American poets through Kundiman. Although I had studied Asian American poetry for some years, I don’t think I began to see myself as an Asian American poet until I became a Kundiman fellow and saw what being part of an Asian American literary community could mean. I think this understanding has allowed my scholarly work increasingly to feed my creative work, which is basically what led to 100 Chinese Silences.  

Now I think I’m experiencing this wonderful feedback loop where my creative work is also pushing my criticism to new places. Probably the best example of this was in the controversy around Calvin Trillin’s poem in the New Yorker, Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” My response was both creative and critical: I wrote a parody of Trillin’s poem that was published on Angry Asian Man, which led to me getting interviewed on NPR, which was followed by my being asked to write an essay for the New Republic. And in that piece, I tried to combine my scholarly knowledge with the emotion I was feeling as a member of the Asian American poetry community—which I think made all the difference to its success.  

LR: You’re the author of the chapbook 15 Chinese Silences, which was published in 2012. Four years and eighty-five Chinese silences later, the book-length 100 Chinese Silences is in print. Can you tell us a bit about how this project evolved? How did it find its trajectory?

TY: The Chinese Silences began when Billy Collins came to Madison to do a reading. There were something like 1,200 people there! Anyway, Collins read a poem called “Grave,” in which he is standing at the graves of his parents, and he says that his father’s silence was like “the one hundred different kinds of silence according to the Chinese belief.” Now, I’m not an expert on all things Chinese, but that didn’t sound familiar to me. And then at the end of the poem, Collins admits that the idea of 100 Chinese silences was something he had “just made up.” In my annoyance, I immediately vowed that I would write these 100 Chinese silences, although at the time I didn’t know what I meant by that.

I started off by simply writing a parody of “Grave,” one that tried to turn the idea of “Chinese silence” on its head. I quickly discovered that Collins had, in fact, written a lot of poems about China (or Asia), and so I continued by parodying those poems. Collins provided me with more than enough material for the first fifteen poems in the series, which became the Tinfish chapbook 15 Chinese Silences.

I soon realized that the project, which had started off as a bit of a lark, was leading me into deeper waters, and that to explore them, I was going to need to move beyond Collins toward a broader investigation of how China and Asia are portrayed in contemporary American poetry and culture.  It turned out that there were many more poems than I expected, by a wide range of poets; some I just found by doing things like searching the Poetry magazine archives for “China.” The poems I found ranged from elegant invocations of Chinese poetry to cringingly offensive uses of stereotype and pidgin. After a certain point, people actually started sending me examples—“here’s a good one for you!”—and so I pretty much had an inexhaustible supply of material.

Of course, the tradition of poetic orientalism I’m exploring isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon; it goes at least back to the dawn of the 20th century and modernism, so at a certain point, I had to begin delving back into that earlier tradition. I did this a bit tentatively at first, starting with a parody of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” (No. 38) and eventually reaching back to modernism: Marianne Moore, W.B. Yeats, and, of course, Ezra Pound, whose poetry is the subject of the final dozen or so poems.  

So, the sequence unfolds pretty much in the order it was written, but that order does represent a fairly conscious movement from contemporary poems about Chinese stuff back to the modernist roots of American poetic orientalism.

LR: Given the book’s wide variety of source material, how did your creative process differ with poems responding to, say, Collins and Tony Hoagland (living, contemporary poets), as opposed to Marianne Moore and Pound (deceased, “canonical” voices)? Or did it? What about your responses to more journalistic sources, such as the speech by Newt Gingrich or David Sedaris’s piece on China?

TY: Rewriting Moore and Pound was certainly more intimidating than rewriting Collins or Hoagland! For the more contemporary writers, my tone sometimes bordered on the snarky. But of course, there was some element of reverence in my approach to figures like Moore and Pound, even as I was trying to mount a critique of their work. It’s probably why I put off grappling with them until much later in the series, when I felt I had more confidence in what I was doing.

Responding to some of the journalistic sources was actually fun, because those were the places in the series where I had a bit more freedom. Much of the series was written under fairly strong constraint; I strove to mirror the style and even the line structure of the originals. But with something like the response to Sedaris, I was able to play around more freely with the grotesque imagery of disgust Sedaris uses in his description of China. The most fun piece in this regard was No. 26, which collaged reporting on Wendi Deng (the then-wife of Rupert Murdoch, who made headlines by slapping down a protester who tried to hit Murdoch with a pie) to the tune of Blake’s “The Tyger.”

LR: How have audiences responded to 100 Chinese Silences?

TY: People seem to like and respond to these poems more than anything I’ve ever written—which of course I have mixed feelings about, since nearly all of them are rewritings of other poets’ work! But I think that is part of the project—trying to use the pleasure and humor of these parodies as a Trojan horse for a certain kind of critique.

I’ve been very gratified by the way that Asian American readers, in particular, have responded to the work—they’ve really embraced it warmly as a way of talking back to a certain tradition, which has been so important to my being able to complete it. I’ve heard a little skepticism from some readers about the way I take on certain poets, Pound in particular, who are not as easy targets as, say, Collins. I certainly think that the poems where I’m rewriting canonical writers are the riskiest and the most open to ambivalent interpretation.

LR: As a literary journal dedicated to the promotion and publication of Asian American poetry, Lantern Review has thought quite a bit about what it means to be an advocate for change in today’s literary climate. In your opinion, what is the most pressing cultural work that needs to be done right now?

TY: I think there is a growing awareness that the voices of people of color need to be heard, and indeed, need to be front and center, in contemporary culture, but there is also awareness of how far we are from having the kind of cultural discourse where that is the case. I think it’s absolutely vital for Asian American writers and other writers of color to continue to build their own spaces—whether that’s publications like Lantern Review or organizations like Kundiman—while also demanding more mainstream representation; the two are not mutually exclusive but go hand in hand. I also think it’s crucial for us to provide a greater sense of the history of racial discourse; the conversations and conflicts we’re having today are not new, but emerge from long histories and deep contexts. This is where I think scholars/critics and poets absolutely must be talking to and learning from each other. Simply having a sense that there is an Asian American literary tradition is an incredible boon to a young Asian American writer.

LR: What are some of the most exciting things happening in Asian American poetry today? What are you currently reading?

TY: The breadth and depth of what’s happening in Asian American poetry is just astonishing. To me, Asian American poetry is a space where the lyrical, the experimental, the performative, the political—things too often separated in the larger poetry world—can engage and infuse each other. Just looking at my nightstand, I see amazing new and recent books by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Brandon Shimoda, Khaty Xiong, Nicholas Wong; books by international Asian writers like Sarah Howe and Fred Wah. And the wider world is taking notice.

LR: After 100 Chinese Silences, what’s next? Can you tell us about any new projects currently underway?

TY: I’m working on a new sequence called Chinese Dreams, and yes, it’s another rewriting—this time of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. I’m fascinated and deeply troubled by Berryman’s framing of his anguished personal lyrics through racially stereotyped language, and I’ve been trying to see what I can do with that from an Asian American perspective.

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Timothy Yu is the author of 100 Chinese Silences, the editor’s selection in the Les Figues Press NOS Book Contest, and of Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford), winner of the Book Award in Literary Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies. He is also the author of three chapbooks: 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish), Journey to the West (Barrow Street; winner of the Vincent Chin Chapbook Prize from Kundiman), and, with Kristy Odelius, Kiss the Stranger (Corollary), and the editor of Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (Kelsey Street). He is professor of English and Asian American studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito

Kundiman co-founders
Kundiman co-founders Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi

To round off our APIA Heritage Month celebration, we sat down with Joseph O. Legaspi and Sarah Gambito, the co-founders of Kundiman—a nonprofit that serves young and emerging Asian American poets through its retreats, reading series, and community resources—to ask about their thoughts as the organization approaches its tenth year.

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LR: Kundiman is coming up on its tenth anniversary this year. How are you feeling about its turning a decade old? What have been some of your favorite moments from your involvement with it over the last ten years?

JL:  Kundiman going on 10 years is astounding to me. Wow! My feelings are overwhelmingly mixed, all strong emotions: for the most part I feel elation and pride, partially with dread and anxiety because there is still so much to do. The question is where do we go from here? We have a decade worth of accomplishments—most prominently, nearly 60 books and chapbooks published by Kundiman fellows—but how do we get to the next level where we are more stable and branch out and empower more Asian American writers. Oh, it is a celebration, of course, but now we’re working on how to sustain Kundiman for the next 10 years, and the next . . . As for my favorite moments, there are just too many. Lawson Inada at the Chinese buffet. Marilyn Chin dancing. The fellows’ sandwich-making contest. All closing circles. The singing, the camaraderie, the poems. The poems. The whole roller coaster [of] experience[s] as some of the most joyous in my life.

SG:  I agree. It overwhelms me that it has been 10 years. We’ve now seen an arc of fellows coming into their own—literally growing up before our eyes. We’ve read their poems, their books, attended their weddings, celebrated the births of children. It has been such a privilege to be able to witness fellows mentor each other, to become each other’s best and most trusted readers. What I love is that we’ve become a family in ways that are mysterious and then not mysterious. (This past winter, I hosted around 15 fellows at my apartment and cooked huge pots of ma po tofu and fried rice.) As for favorite moments, there are so many. I loved the Kundiman reading where Bei Dao and a fellow who had never read in public before and was just finishing college, Yael Villafranca, read together. I was thunderstruck because I realized that I was witnessing something that was so hard-worn, rare and precious: the knitting of generations of Asian and Asian American poets. I love the fellow toasts at graduation where we get to see how fellows have been so aware of each other and are praising each other.  I loved Kimiko Hahn saying “I give myself permission to be a writer. I’ve worked too hard to not do this” and then watching the fellows invoke this throughout the retreat in their own ways, both literary and personal. I loved having Tan Lin at Kundiman and watching him blow workshops out of the water and seeing fellows reorient their relationship to what words can do.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito”

Curated Prompt: Oliver de la Paz – “The Fourteen-Hour Sonnet”

Oliver de la Paz
Oliver de la Paz

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 Oliver de la Paz.

When you’re a parent of three children under the age of 6, you have to be very deliberate in finding time for yourself to commit to the page. My family lives in the country, and it’s a 40-minute commute from my house to the doorstep of my workplace. In addition, all my children are in daycare. You’d think that having the kids in daycare would afford me some time, but it doesn’t. When they’re in daycare, I’m either teaching, thinking about teaching, preparing to teach, or administrating on some committee that has to do with teaching. Needless to say, my writing time comes in pockets. Slivers. Little flares. My relationship with the page is no longer routinized. I used to have ample time to dedicate to writing, but that was before children. Now my writing time is broken down into excursions. Mini-trips. Little rendezvous. I understand that this is my life and rather than succumb to long silences, I challenge myself everyday, to think about a poem. In order to cope with my hectic schedule, I developed a process that fosters obsession.

An obsession is not a terrible thing to have when you’re a writer. It can be a motivator—generative beacon. I try to dedicate increments of five to ten minutes throughout the day to the composition of a line. I also attempt to write a line every hour for fourteen hours, so by the end of the day I have a sonnet-length collection of lines. My poem “Requiem for the Orchard” was composed under these particular conditions. During the hectic weeks of Christmas vacation (who’d have thought Christmas vacation would be hectic?) I had a sense that I needed to craft a “spinal” poem for a collection of poems I had nearly completed.

During the Kundiman Retreat in 2007, I assigned the Kundiman Fellow cohort the following assignment. I give it to you now:

1) Write a single line every hour. Write no more than a line. Even if you feel you wish to write a second line, restrain yourself from doing so.

2) Set an alarm to go off every hour.

3) At the top of every hour, write a new line, adding to the collection of lines you have written throughout the day.

4) Do this for fourteen hours.

Here’s what happens, at least to me, when you set up these particular circumstances—you wind up thinking about the poem all day. Sure, you’ve spaced out the time you get to the page, but in the interstices of an hour, a poem begins to take shape from its first line to its next line to the line that follows. Of course, you’re going to want to be sure that you are in a safe locale for this. One Kundiman fellow was driving when the fellow’s writing alarm went off and she nearly sideswiped a car. Don’t do that.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and Post Subject: A Fable, forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in 2014. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems and the co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

A Conversation with Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Boneshepherds, named by the National Book Critics Circle as one of the best small press books of the year, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Tin House, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Drunken Boat, and Language for a New Century. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, the Global Filipino Literary Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. He is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Rutgers University-Camden and the core faculty of Drew University’s low-residency MFA.

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LR: Let’s start with a straightforward one. Which poets have influenced you the most, both living and dead?

PR: Amiri Baraka, Anne Sexton, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, June Jordan, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Wright, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Paul Genega, Thomas Lux, Marie Howe, Joan Larkin, Suzanne Gardinier, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, my Uncle Charlie. Could I say, too, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Afrika Bambaataa, Kid Capri, The Latin Rascals, Rock Steady Crew, et. al.

BONESHEPHERDS
BONESHEPHERDS

LR: A musical sensibility (as in the poem “A Tradition of Pianos”) features prominently in your latest collection Boneshepherds, along with trauma, despair, loss, and love. What poetic decisions did you have to make in order to successfully navigate the intersections between those topics?

PR: Reading June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye early in my writing life (I was in my mid- to late-twenties) was a revelation to me about the ways fury and tenderness could occupy the same poetic space. Also, reading and re-reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time gave me a literary/ethical/philosophical model for the conjunction of love and rage. I’m confused and compelled by the ways music, violence, terror and tenderness intersect. This means, poetically, I have to be prepared to complicate whatever comes out on the page. A love poem couldn’t simply be a love poem or at least a love poem would be more interesting to me if it were also, simultaneously, an interrogation of history and the body and the role of music.

LR: You often evoke the political in your work: in poems like “Ars Poetics: After a Dog,” you use a rhetorical tone to address the politics of violence, while in “Boneshepherds’ Lament,” the political is melded with the personal. How do you envision the politics of your work as a whole? From a craft perspective, what strategies have you found to be most helpful when engaging with politics through poetry?

PR: To be a political poet doesn’t have to mean that you are only interested in convincing or converting people to a particular viewpoint. The sensual itself is political. It is a way to interact with and interrogate one’s world.

You might ask what the sensual has to do with power (i.e. the political), but it seems to me the official history and the public record, useful as they are, often contradict sensual experiences, if not erase them all together. What political rhetoric says about being poor or black or an immigrant is often directly challenged by the smell of our own fingers after a day of work, the way we kiss, the way we hold a knife or trombone. A kind of history resides in the sensual. And poetry, in sound and sense, is a way to record that.

Poetry, at its best, is a sensual experience. It is bodily—especially in my own work, which I envision as a direct descendant of oral and musical traditions. So what I’m making in a poem isn’t so much a message or a story, but a sequence of sounds and silences which have trajectories and dynamics—like a piece of music has melodic/harmonic trajectories, cadences, tensions and resolutions. Hearing (of poetry, music, and sound in general) happens by the vibration of a drum, a hammer, a stirrup, and an anvil in the ear, which cause the cilia to vibrate too, sending them along a nerve to the brain. Music, then, literally moves us. By music, we are moved.

If, as a poet, I let the music of a line lead me during composition and revision, then the very process of making becomes political. I am being led by the unknown. I don’t mean that in a mystical sense, though the opportunity for an experience of the numinous is possible when writing poems. What I mean is, to consult the delights of the music of a poetic line is a radical response to a world which often wants us to consult strictly logic, reason, money, fear, etc., each of which has its own allegiance to certainty. Music is not loyal to certainty. When it works, it follows surprise.

LR: I love your comment that one of your biggest writing challenges is in “the truth-telling,” or “how you get the poem, the essay, the story that is complicated and true, rather than the easy language, the fashionable language, the language of effects.” How do you keep challenging yourself to write new poetry that tells the truth in new and fresh ways? And what sources of inspiration do you turn to when you’re looking to create surprise in your poetry?

PR: By following a poetic line by its music, by which I mean its percussiveness, its internal rhyme, consonance, assonance etc., I can be led to saying something I didn’t mean. Sometimes I’m led to something I didn’t even want to say. For good reason, we don’t deal with trauma or extreme exuberance in every waking hour. Our will and reason help us keep that in check. But that also means that we potentially have whole lakes of desire, joy, anger, etc. that we are out of touch with. Music disarms us from the mechanisms of safety (logic being one of those mechanisms, the will being another, among many). Music can challenge us into speech that is difficult and strange. The poetry happens in the interrogation of that music and its strangeness and the simultaneous interrogation of the world we live in, i.e. an interrogation of how a poetic line sounds and what it says. That’s how poetry becomes an argument with what we think we already know, how it gave Hikmet an opportunity to say, “I didn’t know I loved the rain…”

LR: Breakdancing has been a large part of your life, and has featured in your work, most notably in Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. What is it about breakdancing that inspires you as a poet, and what poetic strategies have you employed to bring its essence into your work?

PR: I’ve been working on an essay called “The Art of the Mistake” which is about some of the lessons I learned from breaking. Because a breaker is mostly making things up in front of an audience, often trying things with his body that he hasn’t necessarily tried before (a sequence of moves improvised on the spot), he’s prone to screwing up. Sometimes he thinks going into a particular floor move from a toprock is going to be dope, but it might be harder than he expects and he could trip or his foot could end up somewhere he didn’t intend for it to go. Thing is, there are people watching so he has to turn that accident into something—not as a way of hiding the accident, but as a way of letting the accident in. Every good breaker makes a contract with the unexpected: that it will inevitably come, and that he will do his best to say yes to it. Sometimes you invent the illest moves that way.

LR: Hip-hop has also been a big influence in your work, and you have spoken about how the best hip-hop carefully manages energy, rage, syncopation, rhythm, and unusual juxtapositions. A similar thing can be said for poetry—how do you infuse your poetry with these elements?

PR: You’ve hit it right on the nose. Aside from breaking, I also DJ’d and produced dance music. A lot of that composition was done by assembling very disparate pieces of music and sound.

I love thinking of the DJ as a metaphor for what a good poet does. First, the DJ has to practice—a lot. He also has to be familiar with a lot of different kinds of music. He spends his time digging through crates (he used to, before Spotify and Shazam, etc.). He’s always looking for new sounds.

And then when he’s actually DJing for a dance floor, he has to feel. He has to listen while he’s making and what he’s making (a groove) has to be informed by what he hears and feels from the people in front of him (a good portion of a groove is sensed beyond simply listening). The DJ has to remember what he’s played so far, has to hear what’s playing now, and has to imagine what song might make the floor jump next. He is, in that way, a conduit of time. He is looking forward and backward at once—and never leaving the present moment. He is not manipulating time: he’s trying to find the way asynchronous expressions of time might converge to make a single beat. The poet/prophet has to do the same thing, has to look forward and backward at the same time, has to listen while he’s making, has to be asking questions about what came before, what’s to come, who is dancing and who isn’t. He has to figure out how many bodies can he get out on the floor.

LR: You seem to wear several different hats between your writing and your professional life. Your poetry is fluent in the language and imagery of the street and you also maintain a prominent role in the academy as an educator and gatekeeper. Can you speak a little bit about the relationship between those two elements in your life?

PR: Sometimes it’s a troubled relationship. The language of poetry (or the language of the cee-lo game, for that matter) doesn’t often work well in faculty meetings. But principles of justice, love, play, honesty, curiosity, and interrogation inform the work I do as a member of an academic institution. It’s all a life, isn’t it? It’s the mastermix (if I ain’t killed the analogy yet) of all the things I’ve learned as an artist, musician, dance-floor participant, son, brother, knucklehead. I’ve had good teachers and I’ve had shitty teachers. The good ones gave me space to figure out how all this non-traditional living connects to ideas we often consider as erudite. Truth is, the sources of erudition are everywhere. They always have been. The greatest ideas and works of art have always been informed by something on the edge or in the hinterlands or on the margins. The academy doesn’t always want to recognize that and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to be the one who has to do the reminding, but it’s part of the work. And I’m happy to do it.

LR: You’ve been with the Kundiman organization since its very early days. How have you seen it grow and develop through the years?

PR: I’m really proud to have been witness to this. We were at a lounge somewhere in the Lower East Side (is it 9 or 10 years ago now?) when Joseph and Sarah told me their idea and asked if I would be involved in an organization that would hold a retreat for Asian American poets. Everybody has a good idea. Few people act on it. Joseph and Sarah have busted their behinds to grow this into an amazing community of poets. They’ve done a great job to preserve an atmosphere of compassion and openness and a dedication to the work of writing poems. The notion of an Asian American poet is complicated. How do you craft a space that welcomes vastly different histories, aesthetic inclinations, wacky personalities? The bigger that Kundiman gets, the more it has to confront the challenges of these contradictions. I think they’re handling it beautifully. Not to mention, the logistics of an organization, i.e. the infrastructure to the very dream of Kundiman, are a massive undertaking. It’s a credit to Sarah, Joseph, the board and support staff that they get this together the way they do. What a gift to be part of a generation that has that kind of both vision and commitment. I imagine Kundiman will go down as a major achievement in the history of Asian American letters.

LR: You have said that as a poet, you have to be willing to make mistakes. As your career progresses, how do you maintain the willingness to keep making mistakes?

PR: I’m blessed that my audience has grown quite a bit in the decade-plus I’ve been writing poems. So I guess I could feel somewhat self-conscious and shut down. Of course, that happens from time to time. Ambition and shame in a professionalized world of writing are not uncommon. I think I’m sort of a risk taker though. I’m hungry. I want to make poems that surprise me and there’s no doing that without making mistakes. All my errors hold my work as a writer together. They are the very mortar of the good poem. It’s impossible to know which failure will lead me to the next awe, so I try to be curious about all of my fuck-ups and trust that the wonder will come, that astonishment is just another category of mistake.

LR: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

PR: My main focus right now is a collection of essays that I’m co-editing with Ross Gay. We’re collecting work by poets of our generation on the work of Robert Hayden. Teaching, too, is a main priority. As far as writing is concerned, I’ve got a couple of projects, including a long poem about a man (named Willie), a woman (named Yolanda), and a bridge that connects the towns of Paz and Pelea. It’s hard to say what, if anything, will come out of it. It’s been both a challenge and a blessing to try and write this convergence of politics, magic realism, and love story. I’ve got a few other projects in the air that are mostly just ideas and notes right now, including some research on Philippine history, specifically on torture and combat during the Philippine-American War. Maybe Paz y Pelea and the Philippine history research are all the same thing. I’m still figuring it out. And figuring it out is a good place to be.

Process Profile: Purvi Shah Discusses “Some didn’t make it. Some did.” and “This is MY NY.”

Purvi Shah at "Together We Are New York" (Photo by Preston Merchant)
Purvi Shah at "Together We Are New York" (Photo by Preston Merchant)

Purvi Shah’s Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006), which explores migration as potential and loss, won the Many Voices Project prize and was nominated for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. Her work fighting violence against women earned her the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Award in 2008. In 2011, she served as Artistic Director for Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She believes in the miracle of poetry and the beauty of change. Check out more of her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets on Twitter.

For APIA Heritage Month 2012, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a poem (or group of poems) from inception to publication. As in the past, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Purvi Shah discusses her poems, “’Some didn’t make it. Some did.’” and “’This is MY NY.’”, which appeared in Issue 4.

Some say this is woman’s territory: to know what is unspoken in the midst of what is spoken.

It is also territory of the poet, who in lyric enacts what is said, what we fear to say, and yet what we must make known without it ever being said.

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Conversation 6: Split This Rock

We were asked, when dialoguing after sharing excerpts of Together We Are New Yorka community-based project with Kundiman poets honoring the voices of Asian Americans as part of the 10th anniversary of 9/11whether it was difficult to write poems in response to conversations with community members. After all, to capture an individual’s story or fullness of experience is a mighty task. Even many biographers fail. So how does a poet approach someone’s horizon?

Zohra Saed, who had interviewed her charming father for the project, astutely responded how she realized in the process of this writing that her poems had always been in conversationpreviously, she had just been talking to herself. As the audience chuckled, I marveled at the truth of Zohra’s humor-filled revelation and thought about the layers of conversation embedded in my poems, including these I had written for Together We Are New York.

We often think about the buzz poems create but not the buzz that creates poems. Then again, flightor fallis rarely one way.

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Continue reading “Process Profile: Purvi Shah Discusses “Some didn’t make it. Some did.” and “This is MY NY.””

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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Friends & Neighbors: Rounding Out the Summer

Our friends and contributors have been busy this summer!  Here are a few bits of exciting news that have floated our way these past few months:

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Kuwento for Lost Things [ed. Rachelle Cruz and Melissa Sipin] is accepting submissions

Kuwento for Lost Things Anthology
KUWENTO FOR LOST THINGS Anthology

LR Contributors Melissa Sipin (whose work is forthcoming in Issue 3) and Rachelle Cruz (whose work appeared in Issue 1 and who has a postcard poem forthcoming in Issue 3), are co-editing an anthology of phillipine mythology called Kuwento for Lost Things, and are accepting submissions of poetry, prose, and visual art through January 15, 2012.  Submissions guidelines are available here. Please help their project get off the ground by liking or following them on Facebook or Twitter, respectively, and by sending some work their way! Visit their web site here: http://kuwentoforlostthings.wordpress.com/

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Angela Veronica Wong wins a Poetry Society of America NY Chapbook Fellowship

Many congratulations to Issue 1 contributor Angela Veronica Wong, whose chapbook Dear Johnny, In Your Last Letter, was selected by Bob Hicok for a 2011 PSA New York Chapbook Fellowship! A short writeup about Veronica and the other Kundiman fellow who won this year (Alison Roh Park) that appeared on Poets & Writers ‘ contest blog  last week featured a short video clip of Veronica reading at LR‘s joint AWP reading with Boxcar Poetry Review this past February. (Read the article here).

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Craig Santos Perez’s poetry CD, Undercurrent, now available on iTunes

UNDERCURRENT (Craig Santos Perez & Brandy Nalani McDougall)

Issue 1 contributor Craig Santos Perez and Brandy Nalani McDougall have released a poetry CD called Undercurrent that features audio recordings of both artists reading their own poems.  Craig’s contributions are taken from his two collections, from unincorporated territory [hacha] (2008) and [saina] (2010).  Undercurrent is available for download on iTunes, or for purchase through Amazon.  An electronic version of the liner notes can be found on Craig’s blog.

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Jai Arun Ravine’s first book available for order

Jai Arun Ravine's แล้ว AND THEN ENTWINE (Tinfish 2011)
Jai Arun Ravine's แล้ว AND THEN ENTWINE (Tinfish 2011)

Congratulations to Issue 1 contributor Jai Arun Ravine, whose first poetry collection, แล้ว and then entwine has been published by Tinfish! Doveglion has printed Jai’s reflections on the process of writing the book and its guest editor, Craig Santos Perez, has written about editing it on his own blog.  More information about ordering แ ล้ ว and then entwine can be found on Tinfish’s web site.

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Rounding Out the Summer”

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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Editors’ Picks: APIA Writing Doesn’t End with May.

Perhaps it sounds obvious, but engagement with APIA art and writing shouldn’t be limited to the Month of May:  APIA writers and artists are, of course, producing and performing and publishing new and challenging works all year round.  Here are a few recommendations to get you started for the summer (in no particular order):

1. Takeo Rivera’s GOLIATH (dir. Alex Mallory). This powerful one-act choreopoem about the implications of the Iraq War, which began life as an original student play at Stanford, is making its New York City debut tomorrow, thanks to the brilliant creative talents of its playwright (Takeo Rivera) and its director (Alex Mallory).  Takeo is one of those rising-star-types whose work is impossible to miss once it’s entered your periphery: his aesthetic roots lie in the brave activism and the rhythmically-compelling sonic and dramatic gestures of spoken word, and his critical approach to his subject matter is thoughtful, complex, and blade-sharp (he has a Masters Degree in Modern Thought & Literature and is about to enter a PhD in performance studies this fall).  Alex (GOLIATH’s director), is also a forced to be reckoned with: she’s been directing productions and workshops in New York for a couple of years now, and before that, in college, she honed her chops by directing a number of major student productions and by founding The Stanford Theatre Activist Mobilization Project.  Alex was also the major force behind bringing GOLIATH to the Big Apple.  GOLIATH has been newly revised for the New York stage and will be playing at the Robert Moss Theater for the next two weeks. If you’re living in New York City or will be in its vicinity during the next few weeks, I urge you to see this play. I t’s not something you want to miss!  [See the teaser trailer above].

2. “We Axe You to Speak”: Kartika Review’s first poetry reading.   Yes, folks.  Kartika Review’s inaugural reading event is tonight (6 to 8 pm at the SF Public Library, 100 Larkin St), and I highly recommend it (though I’m sad that I’ll have to miss it because I’m not on the West Coast).  Barbara Jane Reyes, Eddy Zheng, Margaret Rhee, Shelley Wong, and Kenji C. Liu.  Great lineup.  Landmark event.  To those of you in the Bay Area: GO.  You do not want to miss this if you can help it.

3. “I Got My”  Music Video ft. Jin [Magnetic North and Taiyo Na].  Bao Phi posted on Facebook that this “is not a music video – more like an Asian American family reunion, or maybe a map. Whatever it is, it’s a gift.”  One can’t help but agree: so many landmark APIA faces!  The video was created for APIA month, but its awesomeness, of course, extends far beyond the month of May alone.  Here’s the video:

Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: APIA Writing Doesn’t End with May.”

A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry with Stacey Lynn Brown, and co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. A recipient of grants from NYFA and the Artists’ Trust, his recent work has appeared in the New England Review, Sentence, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Western Washington University.

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LR: Who were your earliest influences as a young poet? Was there a momentous decision to pursue this career?

OP: I’ve got a lot of early influences so I’ll name a number of firsts. My very first poetry book was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. When my parents first arrived in the U.S. they became subscribers to Readers’ Digest and part of the subscription deal was to receive three gift books with their subscription. One of the gift books was Robert Penn Warren’s book. So apart from my mother’s medical texts, I was pouring over Robert Penn Warren’s poems, not really understanding what was happening in them, but having a profound curiosity over the work.

The first poetry books that I ever purchased for myself were for a poetry class in college. I bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares and Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World. The poetry collection that really opened my eyes to the sonic qualities a poem could have was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I still have the first two tercets memorized: “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat./ The fat/ Sacrifices its opacity . . . ”

The first poetic influence that affirmed I could be a poet was Li-Young Lee’s first book, Rose. I was deciding between continuing a career in the sciences, or pursuing poetry. At the time, I was a care provider in a supported living home for the developmentally disabled and an EMT. I had a lot of time to read because the main client I worked with slept a lot due to the meds. So I read long into my shift. I imagine that was when I decided to pursue the life of letters. I wasn’t really excited about the lab work or the medical work I was doing, and I was feeling quite invigorated by all the poetry I was reading.

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