This groundbreaking anthology spans a wealth of different faith traditions, heritages, and experiences. From Kazim Ali to Li-Young Lee (and our own Mia Ayumi Malhotra, as well), the start-studded lineup featured here has earned it star billing on my (Iris’s) to-read list.
Although this book is prose rather than poetry, it felt like an apt pick for APA Heritage Month! I first heard Hong read an excerpt of it—an essay about Teresa Hak-Kyung Cha—at the Smithsonian’s Asian American Literature Festival in 2019. As with her poetry, Hong’s prose is unflinching, powerfully considered, and masterfully nuanced. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the rest.
Happy New Year! 2019 promises to be another exciting year in the world of APA poetry, and so thought we’d start the year off with a bang—by celebrating three fantastic new books that are the top of our reading list this January. For this month’s roundup, we’ve gathered three collections that explore lineage lost, erased, revived for the poets to come. They are precious works that speak to the interdependencies and support that are central to writing and bearing witness, generation after generation. We hope you’ll enjoy these books as much as we have and that, in savoring them, you’ll be able to engage in your own times of reflection this January—to consider those who came before and those who will come after.
Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus is a jolting lyric study of the white heteropatriachal gazes that have vivisected racialized bodies throughout history. This tradition begins early—Afong Moy, for instance, was the first female immigrant in the US, who was sold to an Orientalist exhibition. In a series of persona poems, Mao envisions Moy aching for home, hollering, and smashing trinkets—small acts of agency even as she is trapped under an exploitative system of tokenism. Then, in “Anna May Wong Makes Cameos,” Mao revives and reimagines the famed Chinese American movie star in movies of the early 2000s, only to illustrate how she would be cut from the scene, crushed underfoot. These poems bring to mind literary scholar Anne Cheng’s Ornamentalism, in which she writes of the defiled body, “Having been made stranger to oneself by unimaginable brutality means that one must reapproach the self as a stranger.” By reencountering the body stripped of self and agency, by reasserting the place of women of color in history, Mao’s poetry stages a form of reencounter that is ultimately protective so that those who follow can be freely generative—to “cross the text out,” to “rewrite this” (10).
The latest collection from Lee Herrick, Scar and Flower, considers what it means to make room in a brutal system of continuous war, climate disaster, mass shootings, deportations, and suicides. As Herrick builds psychic dwellings for repair, the poems in Scar and Flower bring to mind the etymology of “stanza”—a room, a resting point, a space to breathe. By drawing from familiar words and worlds, Herrick gives dimension to these spiritual spaces: the sky’s numerous stars are a reminder of his heritage as a man “born on the other side / of the world” (46); water reminds us of our “resting state” (23); the body is “a song called birth,” venturing out into the world, seeking out and losing its lyrics (48). Lee’s rhapsodic moments return to inherent contradictions of pain and desire—and guide the reader as these knots are worked out through communion with self, other, and world.
Reading Loves You by Sarah Gambito is like thumbing through a grandmother’s scrawled cooking notes, like setting the table for one’s chosen family. Central to Gambito’s collection are poem-recipes, which gain significance through context—“Watermelon Agua Fresca (For When You Need Me),” for instance, takes the form of a list of instructions but ends as a subtle, loving address: “Serve in ice-filled glasses and know how much I love you” (64). At the same time, cooking, as in the poem “Cento,” can just as easily become absorbed, commodified, and twisted into demands for a domestic worker to “do the food,” followed up by: “You cannot cook Filipino food in the kitchen” (18). Even as Gambito never lets her readers forget that love, too, is labor shaped by the legacies of capitalism, imperialism, and colonization, Loves You is a crucial reminder that cutting up chicken and piping lychee cream can be sacred gestures of abundant love, crucial links to homes an ocean away.
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What poetry collections have you been reading to start out your new year? And what books are you looking forward to in the coming months? Share them with us in the comments or let us know onTwitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
Every year around the holidays, we post a roundup of books recommended by our staff writers to the LR Blog. The end of the current year is now fast approaching, and so in continuation of our tradition, here is a list of titles we enjoyed reading in 2012 and wanted to share with you:
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Rules of the House by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa Apogee Press, 2002 Recommended by Mia: “I recently started teaching full-time, so I haven’t had much time to read poetry… but I’m slowly working through Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s Rules of the House. I’ve been savoring every poem because Dhompa has this way of leveling the reader with the slightest detail, all the while developing complex arcs that echo and extend throughout the book.”
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The Pillow Book by Jee Leong Koh Math Paper Press, 2012 Recommended by Wendy: “Inspired by the example of eleventh-century Japanese author and court lady Sei Shōnagon, Jee Leong Koh collects his miscellaneous jottings in his own pillow book. Written in the genre called zuihitsu, which compromises both prose and poetry, these observations, lists and anecdotes on life in Singapore and New York are, in turn, humorous, reflective, satirical, nostalgic and outrageous.”
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Gardening Secrets of the Dead by Lee Herrick Word Tech Editions, 2012 Recommended by Wendy: “[In Brian Turner’s words]: ‘Lee Herrick’s Gardening Secrets of the Dead is a lyric exploration of the fractured and fragmented landscape of the self, where the body is a song composed of many selves. Whitman revised, the poems ‘celebrate and assemble/ from around the world’ with a voice that is politically engaged and rooted in compassion.'”
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Ascension by giovanni singleton Counterpath Press 2012 Winner of the 81st Annual California Book Award for Poetry Recommended by Jai: “Comprised mostly of a daybook written during musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane’s 49-day transition between death and rebirth, giovanni singleton’s Ascension rings with unexpected cadences. As a soul ascends, what settles and rattles at our feet? From day to day, where are the stillnesses? These are the questions this book leads me to ask, as singleton takes us ‘way back to // where every sound / was a story and // every silence / epic.'”
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“Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine“ [Volume 23.2 of Manoa] Recommended by Henry: “This is volume 23.2 of Manoa, the volume that came out in 2011 just prior to ‘Sky Lanterns,’ with beautiful glass-plate negatives of Hawaii, and featuring writers on a variety of illusory paradises not limited to the Pacific. The essays especially are worth checking out!”
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Yours, by Kristen Eliason
Dancing Girl Press, 2012
Recommended by Iris: “I’ve been reading a lot of chaps this year (they’re perfect for short amounts of time, so I can read one on my lunch break), and this one is an absolute gift. Living overseas in the wake of a momentous tragedy, Eliason’s speaker grapples with her alienation and grief in a series of heartbreakingly spare missives—quiet snapshots in whose white spaces the rawness of loss seeps through. Eliason has a talent for lyric invocation, but the real power of this chap, for me, really lies in the spaces of absence that pit and fragment her text—the things she allows her speaker to leave unsaid.”
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Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood by Rachelle Cruz
Dancing Girl Press, 2012
Recommended by Iris: “Another fabulous Dancing Girl title. Notable for the courageous viscerality of its voice, Cruz’s chap is tonally very different from Eliason’s, but also intensely powerful. Cruz’s speaker is a shape-shifter, slipping easily in and out of voices and narratives from across time and space in order to weave together a portrait that glistens as much with sinew as it does with the force of its story.”
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Staff Publications: The LR Blog staff has also had a particularly busy year in terms of our own individual writing lives, and since this post is the one time a year that we get to feature the staff, we thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to share some of their recent and forthcoming publications with you. If you follow the blog regularly and are curious about our bloggers’ own poetic work, we hope you’ll consider adding a few of these titles to your future reading lists, as well!
LR: One of the themes in This Many Miles from Desire that stood out most to me is the notion of the liminal space. There is, for example, the dream space of such poems as “Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption,” the physical space of travel—of being in between here and there, linguistic space, and also spiritual space. Could you talk a bit about how you envisage this relationship between space and liminality in your work?
LH: When I wrote This Many Miles from Desire, I had only been back to Korea once since being adopted. My return was very brief–two days–and that return formed “Korean Adoptee Returns to Seoul.” Since then I have been back for longer periods of time, but the vast majority of This Many Miles from Desire was written in a time where Korea was one large, complex question in my mind. I did not know most of the major details of my early life: the day I was born, who my birth family was (I still don’t), or even what cities like Seoul or Daejeon looked like. In one sense, I felt fully alive, but in another sense, there were so many uncertainties. For example, I do not know my family’s medical history, so that contributed to the sense of liminality to which you refer. My adoptive family is my family, and we are very close. But national origins are vital, so much of the book explored that territory. You can see it in some of the poems. I was on a journey, literally traveling through Latin America and Asia and piecing together remnants of the world to reduce the gaps between my early years and who I had become.
“Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption” was a breakthrough for me both as a person and as a poet because it was one of the first poems I ever wrote about my adoption. The important part of the process was when I discovered Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, essential reading for any poet, in which he problematizes the often used teaching phrase, “write what you know.” I was rather paralyzed, then, because I did not know (about my birth country, my birth family). I couldn’t reference the streets, the food, the people, the sounds of my country. So it was a major turning point for me when Hugo says we should invent. You do not necessarily have to “know” (literally) to write the poem. We can imagine. And so I did. In “Three Dreams of Korea,” I even imagined the dreams. I never had those three dreams. I created them for the poem’s sake. It was incredibly liberating. We write in the direction of discovery. Maybe we float in and out of various states of knowing, and our poems represent that floating. Continue reading “A Conversation with Lee Herrick”→
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.
One of the things that my advisor likes about living in San Francisco is that there’s something for everyone. She says that no matter how weird or specific the interest seems to be, people are able to find each other. Since moving to the East Bay, I’ve joined two organizations. One is the Association of Korean Adoptees | San Francisco (AKASF) that hosted a literary reading with Lee Herrick, Jo Rankin and some authors from the new More Voices anthology in May. It’s a large group of Korean adoptees celebrating and educating others on what it means to be a KAD. The other is the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) that sponsored the A Place of Her Own art exhibition at SOMArts, also in May, with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC) for the 14th Annual United States of Asian America Festival. Twenty-three Asian American women artists responded to the question, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”
This morning, we’re continuing the Monday Morning series that we began last month in celebration of National Poetry and API Heritage Months. Each week, we will be sharing an audio recording of a different poem that has moved, challenged, or stuck with us.
In this week’s selection, from Lee Herrick’s book This Many Miles from Desire (via From the Fishhouse, once again), the poet wrestles with memory, grief, and absence as he imagines his birth mother. “The blues,” says the speaker, “is what mothers do not tell their sons.”
Indeed, the speaker’s blues is a blues of not-knowing, of what is hidden, and of what may never be revealed: it is the question of who his birth mother was, of whether she remembers him, of why he was left at five months; it is the tears he sheds upon remembering that his Korean (presumably birth) name means “bright light”; it is the shreds of things known which he holds onto in the night, the trying on of layers of shimmering imagination like screens across the holes of memory: “Who can really say?” He says, “Sometimes all we have is the blues.”
For those we have lost, for the shreds of lyric and verse that we weave against the poverty of memory, across and through the still ravines of grief:
Yes. Salvation can lie in “the spirit’s wreckage, / examined and damaged but whole again.”