Panax Ginseng: The Compassionate Sentence

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.


Isamu Noguchi's "Seated Female Nude: Scroll" from 1930.
Isamu Noguchi’s “Seated Female Nude: Scroll” from 1930.


Every line and stanza in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses (New Directions, 2013) discharges a single sentence, a mysterious effect.

It’s nothing like the prophetic long line of Whitman’s mad children, no Ginsberg howling on the street corner, saxophonic riffing and swelling, breathless in the moving city as it spills at the seams, flooding forth—

Not quite. Nor is it the disguising work of prose[-block] poetry. Prose poems are camouflaged in continuity, text-wrapped and pressurized without white space. Usually this means, even in narrative prose poems, a sinuous and subterranean movement. This allows an ending to suddenly lift upward out of horizontal motion. (Matthew Olzmann does such sequencing exceptionally well in his lineated poems, using absurd humor for torque.)

But Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s long line in Hello, the Roses is uniquely specific. Observe, from “The Mouse”:

I can’t recall the beauty of the almond trees.

I’m unable to distinguish between seeing trees, my instant awareness of ethereal beauty and trying to remember images of our having been in Greece.

The moment I think of trees, they diffuse into beings whose frequency so differs from mine, I can’t see them.

They connect with each other in groves that seem celestial, yet our worlds unify.

The dawn of the possibility of their appearance as form, stone, shifts probability toward angels. (12)

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Staff Picks: Favorite Reads from 2013

It’s that time again! It’s become a tradition, at the end of every calendar year, for the staff to post a list of favorite reads from among the books that we’ve read in the past 365 days. Without further ado, here are our picks for this year.

Recommended by Iris



by Matthew Olzmann
Alice James, 2013

Iris’s comments: I’ve been a fan of Matthew Olzmann’s work since I first met him and heard him read during an AWP panel in 2009, and Mezzanines did not disappoint. Quirky, humorous, and at times profane, but always grounded by dint of its razor-sharp observations about human nature and an underlying sense of deep empathy, the voice of his poems fills up the space of the imagination with a childlike wonder that is at once riotously absurd and insanely beautiful. Few poets could successfully mix tender intimacy with wry, self-conscious humor (such as the “product placement” in the poem “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” which apparently prompted PepsiCo to send the poet a letter of thanks in real life!), and yet Olzmann does so effortlessly and always with great aplomb.


The Saints of Streets
by Luisa A. Igloria
U of Santo Tomas, 2013

Iris’s comments: Luisa A. Igloria’s new collection, The Saints of Streets left me breathless. As is par for the course in her work, Igloria writes with beauty, strength, and piercing intimacy, precisely interleaving light and shade like a master of shadow puppets. I am told that the poet has several other collections’ worth of poems brewing (thanks to her poem-a-day project over at Via Negativa), and I cannot wait for the next installment.

LifeOnMarsSMLife on Mars
by Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf, 2011

Iris’s comments: Last, but not least, on my list is an older title, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars—winner of the 2012 Pulitzer. I’d heard Smith read at the 2011 Page Turner Festival and had been captivated by the empathy inherent in the persona poems that she’d shared. It was no surprise to me, then, that I fell headlong for Life on Mars, a haunting collection that explores science and the domestic/private life of the scientist and the poet. Life on Mars won the Pulitzer for a reason: it is simultaneously tender and steely, masterfully integrating the infinite scale of the particulate cosmos with the particular stuff of the everyday. Smith’s poems about her father, a retired NASA scientist, are especially moving. I began the book while home sick from work one day, read it all in one sitting, and when I finished, I closed its pages and wept.

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Recommended by Wendy



The Palace of Contemplating Departure
by Brynn Saito
Red Hen, 2013

Wendy’s comments: Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure is a sublime meditation on arrivals and departures, childhood, sisterhood, lost love, and freedom. From cityscape to dreamscape, these poems are deeply felt and fully realized.

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Recommended by Henry


The Proxy Eros

by Mookie Katigbak
Anvil, 2008

Burning Houses
by Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
University of Santo Tomas, 2013

Henry’s comments:
 I first encountered Mookie Katigbak’s “As Far As Cho-Fu-Sa,” a variation on Pound’s adaptation of the Li Po poem, when I was just starting to take poetry seriously. I remember actually getting upset that she had nothing more published at the time. So imagine my joy when I rediscovered Katigbak just this month, whose name has since expanded, and who now has two books of poems which contend with myth and canons in gorgeously clarifying visions. These lines from that early poem (which you can find in The Proxy Eros) have echoed with me for years: “What I am, ever, is this: composure of stones. . . . / /But nothing moves. Somewhere / You are actual. Happen to me there.”

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Recommended by Jai


Islands Linked By Ocean

by Lisa Linn Kanae
Bamboo Ridge Press, 2009

Jai’s comments: I was blown away by Kanae’s experimental text written in (and about) Hawaiian Creole English and pidgin, “Sista Tongue.” This collection of her short stories is deeply moving, flat-out hilarious, and strengthened by the sharp vulnerability in each character’s voice.


by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
Belladonna, 2013

Jai’s comments: This book is sonic genius . . . Diggs is sonic genius. A multilingual text written in Cherokee, Japanese, Spanish, Quechua, Yoruba and more, it is a (re)sounding “werk” of kinesthetic/kine-sonic delight.


M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan University Press, 2008

Jai’s comments: In 1781 on the slave ship Zong, over 150 slaves were thrown overboard in order for the ship’s owners to collect insurance money. Philip grasps at these submerged voices, a drowned language. Reading this book is disorienting and chaotic—letters are jettisoned from words, phrases are cast and broken. In this horror, in this violence done unto language/bodies, the dead arise from the sea.

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For additional reading, we also recommend any of the following titles that we featured here on the blog during 2013:

What were your favorite reads in 2013? Tell us in the comments, or share a link with us on Facebook or Twitter! Have a safe and wonderful new year, and we’ll see you in 2014.

A Conversation with Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann
Matthew Olzmann


Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books), selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from the Kresge Arts Foundation, The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, he teaches at Warren Wilson College and is the poetry editor of The Collagist.

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LR: Some of the most pervasive themes that Mezzanines deals with are place, identity, and faith, all in the context of mortality. Can you talk about the relationship between mortality and some of the specific places, identities, and beliefs you grapple with in the book?

MO: I’ve heard it said that most of literature, in some way, grapples with only one question: what does it mean to be alive? I’m probably not capable of answering that question, but if the idea of mortality hangs over a lot of these poems, it’s because I often get stuck thinking in binary terms; I get at things by considering their opposites. What does it mean to be alive? Not a clue. What does it mean to not be alive? Now I’m sufficiently terrified. What I’m saying is I tend to be the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side. I know Eden is paradise only when I’m banging against the gate from the wrong side.

LR: Mezzanines is full of unlikely juxtapositions and contradictions; for example, the interplay between high literature and the intensely personal and emotional in “The Tiny Men in the Horse’s Mouth” or the pairing of sci-fi pop culture with a meditation on racial identity in “Spock as a Metaphor for the Construction of Race During My Childhood.” What are your thoughts on contradiction and juxtaposition as poetic strategies? As the aforementioned poems appear side by side in the book, can you explain how they relate to one another?

MO: I’m interested in making connections between various points, in metaphor as a device that makes something abstract more tangible. As such, I’m constantly looking at things that might not overtly belong together, and I’m trying to find correspondences among those dissimilarities.

In trying to organize the book, I initially arranged the poems a little bit more thematically: here are the love poems, the poems about identity, the poems about weird stories from the news, etc. However, those thematic clusters quickly began to feel artificial and predetermined. So I deliberately broke them up and tried to spread them out over the book, hoping those threads that were related in terms of “content” would echo and speak to each other across the length of the book rather that exist back-to-back as next-door neighbors. I began thinking of the order “tonally,” and those two poems—while apparently dissimilar in terms of subject matter—felt similar in terms of tone and perspective, both in their movement from humor to emotional crisis, and from an outward gaze to internal reflection.

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Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 1

Morning in Denver from our hotel window

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

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

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

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