On the Chapbook and the “Possibilities of Risk”: A Conversation with Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee

Chen Chen, Margaret Rhee, and Their Chapbooks
Chen, Rhee, and their chapbooks’ covers (Photo of Chen Chen by Jeff Gilbert)

Over the course of this National Poetry Month, we’ve been curating a conversation about Asian American poetry and the book as object. If you’ve been following along with our collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum these past couple of weeks, you’ll also have noticed our thematic emphasis on the chapbook and its unique relationship to the print traditions of poetry as a genre. Today, in continuation of that discussion, we’re pleased to be able to present a conversation with poet-scholars and two-time chapbook authors Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee. Chen, the author of Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015), and Rhee, the author of Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011), spoke to us about the delights and challenges of the chapbook as a form and shared some of their experiences from the process of shaping and finding publishing homes for their chaps.

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LR: What appeals to you about the chapbook as a form, as distinct from the more traditional format of the full-length poetry collection?

CC: I love that you can read a chapbook in one sitting. I mean, I do that with full-length collections I love, but a chapbook feels like such a good, healthy portion of poetry. You have just enough energy to devour it properly.

I love working with small presses. And I’ve been so lucky. Porkbelly Press did my first chapbook, and I remember giving the editor, Nicci Mechler, all these different ideas for cover art (maybe a train? a moon? a single flower? multiple flowers but not too many?)—and she just knocked it out of the park. I think that’s the first time I’ve said “knocked it out of the park.” Well, written it. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud. I would say it out loud for Nicci Mechler and Porkbelly Press. Those cleavers. That perfect purple. Two of Cups Press did my second chapbook, and we were able to use Lizzy DuQuette’s fabulous image for the cover. I’ve felt so listened to, cared for, by these presses. At AWP this year, Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, the editor at Two of Cups, organized chapbook signings for her authors and a last-minute-but-really-fun joint reading in her hotel room. With both chapbooks, we ran into formatting issues (my lines just got too long!)—both times, the editors knocked it out of the park.

MR: I love the ephemeral nature of chapbooks, how artistic the chapbooks can be, and the possibilities of risk (as poet, as publisher) within the chapbook form.

Moreover I like how chapbooks are not tied to the capitalistic market (as limited as it is for po-biz); there’s something pure about them. This kind of poetry isn’t really about money.

I loved both presses I’ve worked with, Tinfish Press for Yellow (2011), and Finishing Line Press for Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love (2015). Both editors, Susan Schultz (Tinfish Press) and Christen Kincaid (Finishing Line Press), paid such close attention to the chapbook as form, and I am so greatly appreciative for the opportunity to work with both of them.

In addition to editing my first chapbook, Susan graciously wrote a blurb for my second chapbook, which also speaks to the generative relationships when working with an editor on a chapbook of poetry. I learned tremendously from Susan and count her as a formative mentor. A precious gift.

LR: Each of your chapbooks has a unique project or conceit that shapes and informs it. Can you describe for us how these projects came about?

CC: For Set the Garden on Fire, I was interested in the child’s voice, the queer child’s voice, the voice of a child of immigrants. So a lot of the poems in this first chapbook wrestle with childhood, early adolescence, and engage coming of age in this very intersectional way. Companion poems like “Write a Letter to the Class About Your Summer Vacation” and “Write a Letter to Your Mother About Your Longest Winter” helped structure the collection—echo and break, circularity as well as surprise, I hope. Flowers and fires, yes, but donuts also play an important role. The chapbook is full of questions about what tenderness means and what kinship or community could look like.

Kissing the Sphinx is much less autobiographical. Or less directly so. I think of it as my chapbook of wacky love poems. There’s a hot air balloon and fuchsia snow pants. There’s Eros and Mariah Carey. One of the speakers makes a trip from Helsinki to Shanghai that I’ve never made. I had to Google how many hours that flight is. The loose arc of the collection goes from early (attempts at) dating to this (attempt at a) more serious relationship. The chapbook wonders, what is “serious” and what is a “relationship”? There is also Tom Daley and a Russian driving instructor.

MR: I’ve spoken before about the project that became Yellow in an interview at Writing Like an Asian:

Yellow was a poetic investigation of . . . [questions] around meaning and difference. But it was also an experiment on poetic form and how formal qualities shape “the racial” and color. The title poem, “Yellow,” was my first conscious attempt to fuse the two (formal + racial) and signaled a turn for my relationship with poetry. . . . [At the time of writing Yellow,] I was inspired by French avant-garde poets of the 1960s such as the Oulipo and Stephane Mallarme, but I was also responding to avant-garde poetry and the privilege of racial omission when utilizing color in poetry, for example. With the exception of “Body Maps,” the poems in the collection were all written within a span of six months and with experimentation as a key focus of writing during that time.

The chapbook is a section of a poetry manuscript I am completing, tentatively entitled “I Love Juana” and Other Poemas, a collection on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, and protest.

Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love came about via various research I was doing on robots and culture for my PhD work at UC Berkeley. At the time, I found that poetry-writing about robots was an interesting way to engage and question demarcations of difference through the science fictional. It was also a reprieve from the scholarly research. In every sense, the robot love relations in Radio Heart are queer relations, but not explicitly so. It was refreshing to take a different turn from my previous writing, which deals pretty centrally with issues of difference (race, class, sexuality) and to explore how science fiction poetry can ask questions on difference, but through worldbuilding. However, I still write explicitly political poetry (Yellow is a section of a poetry manuscript [as mentioned above] I am completing on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, protest); it’s simply part of my orientation and practice, I realize—activism that seeps through into the poetic. But I also turn to science fiction as a way to worldbuild other possibilities. My next book is about space exploration and Mars.

LR: While writing each of your chaps, how did you go about deciding which poems belonged in the manuscript? Were there any poems that didn’t make the cut?

CC: The page limit that each press provides in their submission guidelines was very helpful. It seems the typical chapbook is between twenty and thirty pages. I like this. It makes the cuts easier for me, because I can just blame the press’s page limit. Sorry, poem about two male astronauts having a homoerotic moment right before getting blasted into space—it’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the page limit. A bit more seriously, though: I consider which emotional notes have been hit and whether I’ve been banging one gong a bit too frequently. I think: the gong of sadness over a breakup has been hit. Or: the gong of being silly about homoeroticism has been hit. I want to keep the psychological or narrative arc of the collection clear and tight.

MR: All the poems in the original manuscript made the cut, but I would add, I have a section entitled “Radio Heart” that contains four-line poems. The section was inspired by the work of Descartes on the body (Discourse on Method). I decided to leave the poems on separate pages in the chapbook, but in the larger book manuscript, they are all placed on one page, as one poem.

LR: Of the poems that appear in your chaps, is there one of which you’re most proud? We’d love to hear its story if you’d care to share it.

CC: I’m pretty fond of “Race to the Tree” from Set the Garden on Fire. This fondness came after deep frustration. This poem took forever. I started it in college. Then I couldn’t look at it for a couple years. In the second year of my MFA, I looked at it again. Bruce Smith, one of my brilliant teachers at Syracuse, was teaching us about the ballad form. Something clicked. Or not really “clicked,” because the poem isn’t in ballad form. But something about quatrains and a dark night and a song that is also a narrative and then the three sections . . . it took me a long time to think of the poem in such formal terms. The emotions in the poem were/are so volatile. The night I sort of accidentally came out to my parents. The night of the argument that would push me back into the closet. The night I thought I would run away and never return. The night I saw my parents as strangers (and I’m sure they saw me that way, too). So. Then. Writing, rewriting. I revised it again when it went into my MFA thesis. When it went into the chapbook. Now the poem’s in my full-length book. I’m pretty sure it’s done, now. But when I say, at the end of the poem, “I was 13, I am 13, it is/night”—every time I read that aloud, it’s true.

MR: This is a great question! I’m pretty proud of “Beam, Robot.” It was originally published in Hyphen magazine’s literary section that is edited by Karissa Chen. Karissa is a fantastic editor, and she had some really wonderful words of advice on how to enliven and tighten the poem’s language and world. When I was interviewed on the poem for the magazine, it helped me reflect on the project as a whole. It is a rare opportunity to work so closely on a poem with an amazing editor like Karissa, and I’m really glad about how it came out.

LR: Figuring out how to navigate the publishing world can be a notoriously difficult process for emerging poets of color. Can you tell us about the decision process that went into choosing the publisher for each of your chapbooks? Do you have any advice for Asian American poets who are hoping to find the right home for a first chapbook manuscript?

CC: I’ve answered this one a bit with the first question. But yes. The right homes. The editors who will listen and care and listen. My advice to Asian American poets wanting to publish a chapbook: check to see if the press has published any Asian American poets before. More than one? Look at the submission guidelines. Are the editors explicit about seeking and supporting work by writers of color, queer writers, queer writers of color? Do they use this language? Are they explicit about being feminist, antiracist? What is the exact language of the guidelines page or the call for submissions or the “about” page? For example, Porkbelly Press describes itself as such: “We’re a queer-friendly, feminist press open to all, and encourage works from authors all along the identity spectrum.” And: ask folks who have worked with that press before. Their experiences.

Also, the design and production quality matter. The cover art matters. Not while you’re writing, of course. But while you’re deciding where to send the writing out. If you can, obtain a chapbook from a press you’re considering (and sometimes, the submission fee is a chapbook purchase because the press wants you to be familiar with what they do). Hold the physical object in your hands. Turn the pages. Is it a beautiful thing? Is it an artifact you want in your hands, your home? Is it a home for poems? Could you see yourself with a chapbook like that, reading from it, to an audience, one lovely day?

MR: With Yellow, I was lucky because my friend (and my formative mentor) Craig Santos Perez recommended me to Susan Schultz as a potential poet for her new series. It turned out to be the best home for Yellow, given Susan’s commitment to experimental poetics, Korean American poetics, and poetics of the Pacific. With Finishing Line Press, I submitted in part because I loved their chapbooks and the attention they give to women’s poetry. I am thinking especially of [LR editor] Iris A. Law’s chapbook Periodicity (which I taught and reviewed) and Karen McPherson’s Sketching Elise. Both are wondrous chapbooks.

For emerging poets of color and Asian American poets, I would recommend seeking out a publisher with a sensibility you feel kin to. This may mean seeking out chapbooks you love and checking out who published those collections, and submitting accordingly. Ultimately, you want an apt home that can take care of your poems.

I just received the second printing of Radio Heart, and it’s been interesting to think about the myriad of approaches to chapbook publishing. My publisher made some changes to the second version, and it feels more like a book. But in many ways, I miss the first version of Radio Heart, the staples (the second printing is perfect bound), the colored vellum (the second printing has a new image of the publisher’s logo), and the paper (the second printing is glossy). The second printing feels more like a book, while the first printing really feels like a chapbook (more porous in its paper materials and ephemeral in its staples).

I am getting used to this second version, but the first edition will always be dear to me, most certainly for the same reasons I love poetry chapbooks (as opposed to full-length books).

My friend the amazing poet Neil Aitken consoled me in saying that the second version just makes the first version more special. I will heed his expertise, as it makes me realize the experience of chapbooks: how limited they are, but also how special.

LR: You’re both academics as well as poets [Rhee is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon; Chen is an English and creative writing PhD candidate at Texas Tech University]. In what ways has your critical scholarship informed your creative work? How do you balance your scholarly pursuits with the labor that it takes to promote, sell, and market your chaps and other published creative work?

CC: I’ll start with the second question . . . when I first joined Twitter, I almost broke down and sobbed, I was so overwhelmed. Information overload. And although it was the reason I made a Twitter account, I just hated being self-promotional. Which, now, I understand is a necessary part of being an author, especially now, especially as a poet. I don’t have an agent or a publicist. Editors and presses help. But folks seem most interested in reading and/or buying my work if I’m the one telling them about it. I mean. I want to share the work. I want the work to do things in the world. I want the work to be useful, in some way, to someone. Still, the publishing author is different from the writing poet. I don’t know that I’ve balanced it, yet. Or maybe each day is a different attempt at balancing, some more successful than others. The poet Scott Woods made a beautiful and important post on Facebook the other week, basically insisting that you should “put your book on the table” at readings and other events. Take some healthy pride in this work you’ve made. Join the literary conversation, which is certainly happening on Twitter, as well.

My scholarly work focuses on contemporary US poets of color. Recently, I’ve written essays about Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Robert Hayden, Nikky Finney, and Aracelis Girmay. These essays need more work before I can seriously consider sending any of them out. I’m interested in notions of the transnational and the planetary, transgressive conceptions (and enactments!) of space, and large scales of time that challenge me to see strange connections between poets and poetries (poetics and ethics, as well . . . ). When Finney excavates a prehistoric space in one of her poems, I follow and try to read the prehistory within the history, within the now. When Girmay suggests that the donkey is closer to “us” than we might first believe, I try to believe and read the donkey in how poets speak and sing and what this donkey song has to do with justice and grief. The poems I’m writing now are grappling with grief, are grieving—my partner’s mother passed away from cancer last fall—and asking questions about education or learning. What does the university provide? What does the university police? What other “schools” do I need to explore? Is there a “school” in prehistoric aliveness, a “school” in donkey song that I need to enroll in?

MR: Throughout graduate school, it wasn’t really hard to balance poetry and scholarship, because it all seemed to be part of the same practice: questioning, investigating, writing . . . looking back, I think it wasn’t challenging to balance both because I didn’t actively seek publication for my poetry. It really remained a practice, and I simply published when I was invited to submit and very occasionally sent out work (perhaps once every three months or so). I did very limited publicizing for Yellow, and ironically, because of my scholarship, I was at a critical theory seminar at the University of Hawai’i  that summer the chapbook was published (which is where Tinfish is based), and so it was poetic kismet in a way. I was able to have a “launch reading” in Hawai’i, with Craig, Susan, and others, because of the scholarly training I was engaging in at the time.

I guess though, now that I am out of graduate school, and teaching a full load—time, my time, feels much more limited. Two years ago, I was also given some formative advice from a cherished mentor to send out my work more often. I waited a few years between Yellow (2011) and Radio Heart (2015) and upon my mentor’s advice took more time to send out work, which is how Radio Heart came about.

I would say helping promote Radio Heart has taken more time in terms of interviews and other kinds of publicity and readings. I am grateful, because like this interview, it is a generative process. But the work of promoting and submitting is such a different animal than writing. I really prefer the latter rather than the former.

LR: One of the things that we love to do at Lantern Review is to continually highlight new work for our readers. What are a few of your own favorite chapbooks by APIA writers that you would recommend?

CC: Just out from BOA Editions: Li-Young Lee’s chapbook The Word from His Song (2016). From Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary (2014). From Manor House: Ngoc Doan’s For Not So Much the Love of Weather (2014).

MR: I second Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary. Neil Aitken’s Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl, 2016). [Also,] not APIA, but pretty fabulous and we have a Salvi-Kore connection, and I love her chapbooks: Raquel Gutiérrez, Breaking up with Los Angeles (Econo Textual Objects, 2014).

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Chen Chen is the author of two chapbooks, Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015). His full-length collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was selected by Jericho Brown for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and will be published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in spring 2017. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.

Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooks Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) and Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her literary fellowships include Kundiman, Squaw Valley, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship. She holds a PhD in ethnic and new media studies from UC Berkeley and teaches in women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.

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[Editors’ Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Susan Schultz’s name and, at Margaret Rhee’s request, to clarify Craig Santos Perez’s role as her mentor as well as a friend.]

Guest Post at the American Bookbinders Museum Blog

ABM Guest Post Screenshot

We’re excited to announce that we have a guest post up on the American Bookbinders Museum’s blog this afternoon. LR editor Iris writes about the history of the chapbook and its importance to the modern poetry scene and describes four chapbooks by some of the poets who are featured in our ongoing collaboration with the museum for National Poetry Month:

“Four Beautiful Chapbooks by Asian American Poets to Read for National Poetry Month”

Click on over to read about Monica Mody’s Travel and Risk, Barbara Jane Reyes’s For the City that Nearly Broke Me, Candy Shue’s You Know Where You’ve Been By Where You End Up, and Debbie Yee’s Handmade Rabbit Society, and please don’t forget to stop by the museum tomorrow night (Thursday, April 21st), where we’ll be taking over their Third Thursday event series with more work by Monica, Barbara, Candy, Debbie, Jason Bayani, and Brynn Saito.  You’ll get the chance to view pieces that each poet read last Saturday, to respond in writing, and to construct and bind a mini chapbook of your own to take home.

For more information, please see the Facebook page for the event as well as our previous blog post that describes our collaboration with the museum in more detail. And if you’re enjoying our focus on the chapbook, stay tuned for a dual interview about the chapbook with poets Margaret Rhee and Chen Chen next week. There’s plenty of goodness still to come before National Poetry Month is up!

LR at the American Bookbinders Museum: A Celebration of National Poetry Month

LR at ABM

Happy National Poetry Month! We’re back from AWP Los Angeles and are ready to take on April full-steam ahead.

This month, we are pleased to announce that Lantern Review is collaborating with the American Bookbinders Museum, a new and incredibly unique space in San Francisco that’s dedicated to the history of bookbinding, to celebrate National Poetry Month. Together with the museum, we’ll be producing two special events that showcase Asian American poetry in conversation with bookmaking and the printed page:

On April 16th at 7 pm, we will be hosting a reading at the museum featuring six award-winning Asian American poets (Barbara Jane Reyes, Brynn Saito, Debbie Yee, Candy Shue, Jason Bayani, and Monica Mody) who will be presenting work that explores the thematic connections between bookbinding, paper, Asian American history, and the San Francisco Bay Area itself. Books will be for sale after the reading, and poets will be available to sign copies for audience members. Admission is $5.00 ($2.50 for students, children under 10 free; no one will be turned away for lack of funds), with all proceeds going toward supporting the museum’s operations. (Please see our Facebook event for this reading here.)

We also invite you to join us on April 21st from 5:30 to 8:00 pm, when we’ll take over the museum’s regular Third Thursday event with more Asian American poetry. For this free, public, drop-in event, mounted broadsides of some of the poems read on the 16th will be on display in the museum’s gallery, and visitors will be able to interact with and respond to the work in the context of the binding and printing machines and archival materials in the gallery by creating hand-crafted mini poetry chapbooks of their own. (Please see our Facebook event for this evening here.)

Both events will take place in the American Bookbinders Museum’s building at 355 Clementina Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. If you’re based in the Bay Area, we hope you’ll be able to come out and join us on one or both evenings! We are so excited to get to partner with the museum and (now that we are officially based in the Bay) are thrilled to have the opportunity to celebrate Poetry Month by highlighting some of the amazing Asian American poetry that is being produced right in our backyard.

What will you be doing to celebrate National Poetry Month this year? Will you be attending any local events celebrating Asian American poetry in your community? Please let us know about them in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook—we’d love to help you spread the word!

LR News: National Poetry Month 2013 Giveaway Results

AprilGiveawayBanner

Thank you so much to all of you who entered our 2013 National Poetry Month giveaway!  This weekend, we put the total number of entries (comments) received through a random number generator, and let it choose the number of the winning comment for us:

NPM2013GiveawayResult

And the winner is  . . .

Noel Mariano (comment #13), who writes that he is currently in the midst of reading Barbara Jane Reyes’s Diwata and re-reading Bino Realuyo’s The Gods We Worship Live Next Door.

Here’s a screenshot of his comment:

NPM2013GiveawayWinningComment

Noel will receive a 1-year subscription to the Asian American Literary Review (courtesy of AALR), a copy of Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s Magnetic Refrain (courtesy of Kaya Press), and a copy of Henry W. Leung’s Paradise Hunger (courtesy of the author). Congratulations, Noel!  We hope you’ll enjoy your prize!

Also as promised, each of the first ten commentors to have entered the contest will receive a bundle of five of our poetry starter packs. These lucky ten people are, in the order in which their comments were received:

  1. Rumit Pancholi, who’s reading Li-Young Lee and Garrett Hongo.
  2. Cathy Linh Che, who adores Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors.
  3. R., who has Myung Mi Kim and Barbara Jane Reyes on the top of their list.
  4. Roberto Ascalon, who’s reading Jon Pineda and looking forward to Jason Bayani’s Amulet.
  5. Michelle Penaloza, who recommends both Eugene Gloria and Luisa Igloria.
  6. Luisa Igloria, who wrote of her love for Paisley Rekdal’s work.
  7. Michelle Lin, who’s enjoying Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interioat the moment.
  8. Rachelle, who’s reading Brynn Saito and Jason Bayani, and is waiting for Manila Noir (ed. Jessica Hagedorn)
  9. Jane Wong, who recently finished (and loved) Lynn Xu’s Debts and Lessons and also recommends the work of Cathy Park Hong (having recently read Engine Empire) and Myung Mi Kim.
  10. Kristen Eliason, who says she visits and revisits For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang, and Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil.

We were thrilled to see everyone’s responses. There was a wide range of names mentioned in the thirty-four comments that were left on the original post; Ching-In Chen, Kimiko Hahn, and Li-Young Lee topped the list at 4, 3, and 3 mentions each, while a number of other poets (Jason Bayani, Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Myung Mi Kim, Karen Llagas, Barbara Jane Reyes, Ocean Vuong, Lynn Xu, and Andre Yang) were mentioned twice. Other writers who showed up on people’s lists included: Arthur Sze, Karen An-Hwei Lee, Dilruba Ahmed, Angie Chuang, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Kenji Liu, David Maduli, Pos L. Moua, Soul Choj Vang, Ka Vang, Sesshu Foster, Angela Torres, Matthew Olzmann, Koon Woon, Allen Qing Yuan, Beau Sia, Amy Uyematsu, Russell Leong, Mitsuye Yamada, Joel Tan, Tsering Wangmo, Lee Herrick, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, David S. Cho, Bao Phi, Ed Bok Lee, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Sasha Pimental Chacon, Burlee Vang, Ishle Yi Park, Sally Wen Mao, Lo Kwa Mei-En, and Hoa Nguyen. (To read about these recommendations  in more detail, click here to see the original post). Many commentors also took the time to leave detailed remarks about the work of the poets they’d mentioned. Their recommendations have definitely nudged us to add several names and  titles to our reading lists, and we hope they’ve inspired you, too!

Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you so much again to everyone who entered, as well as to our generous sponsors, AALR, Kaya, and Henry Leung. A very happy tail end of National Poetry Month to you all!  We’ll see you on the flip side, in May, when we’ll continue our celebration of Asian American poetry with more special content for APIA Heritage Month.

Process Profile: Christopher Santiago Discusses “Tam”

Christopher Santiago
Christopher Santiago

Chris Santiago is a poet, fiction writer, critic, and teacher. His writing has appeared in FIELD, Pleiades, The Asian American Literary Review, Canteen, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and elsewhere. He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and has been a finalist for both the Stony Brook Short Fiction Contest and the Kundiman Poetry Prize (for his manuscript Tula). Chris is completing his Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where he is a Provost’s Ph.D. Fellow and ACE-Nikaido Fellow, and teaches literature & writing in the Thematic Option Program.

This April, we are returning to our Process Profiles series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their writing process for an individual poem or poetic sequence of theirs. As in the past, we’ve asked Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a piece of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Christopher Santiago writes about his poem “Tam,” which appeared in Issue 5.

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I wrote the first draft of “Tam,” I think, out of anger. It’s an older poem, and I was in my early twenties and mad about a lot of things, but one of the things that really got under my skin was pop culture, and portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in particular. Miss Saigon, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s Vietnam War redux of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, was the kind of cultural object that really drove me up the wall. The tale of Kim, a Vietnamese bargirl who commits suicide so that her son, Tam, can grow up in the States with his American ex-GI father, didn’t bother me when I first saw it as a teenager. But over the years, the memory festered—I won’t waste time explaining why—and only after I began to try to write seriously did it occur to me that this anger might be something I could use.

I was just starting out, and writing a lot of persona poems, partly because I felt that trying to get in someone else’s head allowed me to get outside of myself, and partly because I was (and still am) deeply interested in voice. My anger toward Miss Saigon—and texts that were like it—gave me energy, but it also made me inarticulate. As the poem unfolded, then, I felt the impulse to deflect, to approach the subject obliquely—from the point of view of Tam, who I imagined growing up haunted by the memory of his mother’s voice. That way, I reasoned, I could really poke holes in the musical’s phony premise, its false catharsis. I could build further into its world in a way that would, I hoped, reveal its glib and hollow heart.

After I wrote a few drafts, the poem sat on the back burner for years, until I started working a couple of years ago on a manuscript I’m tentatively calling Tula. I was happy to find “Tam” on an old hard drive, and happier still to find that one of my current obsessions had begun to take shape in “Tam” years before: my obsession with the way that unlearned languages haunt us. I never learned to speak Tagalog, or Ilonggo, or Bicolano—my mother tongues, or heritage languages—and I’m fascinated by the bits and pieces that I do know, the bodily traces of certain rhythms and intonations in the ears of 1.5 and 2nd generation folks like me. I’ve been reading these fascinating fMRI studies on the subject: the science, as far as I can tell, supports the intuition that Kim—her singular way of speaking—remains a part of Tam even after he can no longer recall (at least consciously) a single phrase of Vietnamese.

As for the poem, I still liked its bones, but thought perhaps it over-explained itself. I decided to strip it back, to let the silences bleed more, and to break the suite of episodes into shorter and more irregular fragments. I also hoped that reordering them might quiet some of the melodrama. I’d given Tam my anger, and think he deserved to feel it; some of it, I think, still bubbles up under the lid. But instead of belting his anger out under the spotlights, Tam mutters it under his breath. I hope that gives the poem at least a bit more bite and plaintiveness.

Process Profile: Esther Lee Discusses DAUGHTERS OF CELLULOID

Esther Lee
Esther Lee

Esther Lee has written Spit, a poetry collection selected for the Elixir Press Poetry Prize (2011) and her chapbook, The Blank Missives (Trafficker Press, 2007). Her poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Lantern Review, Ploughshares, Verse Daily, Salt Hill, Good Foot, Swink, Hyphen, Born Magazine, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University where she served as Editor-in-Chief for Indiana Review. She has been awarded the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize and Utah Writer’s Contest Award for Poetry selected by Brenda Shaughnessy, as well as having been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and AWP Intro Journals Project. Currently, she pursues a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Utah and lives with her fiancé, Michael, and their dog and three cats in Salt Lake. Starting this fall, she will begin teaching as an assistant professor at Agnes Scott College.

This April, we are returning to our Process Profiles series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their writing process for an individual poem or poetic sequence of theirs. As in the past, we’ve asked Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a piece of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Esther Lee reflects upon the excerpt of her project Daughters of Celluloid that appeared in Issue 5.

*  *  *

(if his plate would not record the clouds, he could point his camera down and eliminate the sky)

—John Szarkowski

If there is a hegemonic familial gaze, imposing rigid familial ideologies, then mothers are most cruelly subjected to its scrutiny.

—Marianne Hirsch

HandsExcerpts of this Process Profile are pulled from a craft talk titled, “Double Exposures: Photographic Fictions and Traumatic Memories” given at Virginia Tech. All photographic images are ones I’ve taken or borrowed from family albums.

My hope is to invite you into a constellation of influences—and mostly questions—I’m working with and exploring in this work-in-progress, tentatively titled Daughters of Celluloid. This constellation includes the works of writers and artists who meditate on, thematize, and/or employ photography, as well as those whose works investigate the complexities of trauma and representations, in particular, of trauma not directly experienced first-hand. So a kind of assemblage, if you will, one that is part wax, part string, part etched glass.

In Daughters of Celluloid, the narrator finds that her mother’s enigmatic past is pocked with speech, presented as fragmented anecdotes, suggesting recessed narratives of trauma and dislocation. To borrow a phrase from the French novelist and Holocaust writer, Henri Raczymow, memory is “shot through with holes” and underscored by potential absences of family photographs wherein large swaths of time and space have seemingly vanished, losing any semblance of continuity. As a result, the narrator finds herself attempting to photograph the mother, grappling with how the camera can both fix and unfix them. In doing so, they disrupt their unspoken ways of looking, complicating the myths of familial memory and, ultimately, searching for what Alison Bechdel describes in her graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, as a “mutual cathexis” between mother and daughter, wherein they can recognize each other’s invisible wounds.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Esther Lee Discusses DAUGHTERS OF CELLULOID”

LR News: A Giveaway for National Poetry Month 2013

April 2103 Giveaway Post

Happy April! It’s national poetry month, and as usual, we’re celebrating both this month and next (APIA heritage month) on the LR blog with lots of Asian American poetry goodness. This year, for April, we’ll be running an installment of our annual Process Profiles series, and we’ve also teamed up with our friends at the Asian American Literary Review and Kaya Press to offer a giveaway that includes some truly awesome prizes.

First, though, we want to hear from you: what Asian American poets are on your reading list for this April, or what’s one poet whom you’d recommend to people who want to read more Asian American poetry this month? Leave a comment on this post by April 22nd with the name of at least one Asian American poet whose work you love, and you’ll be entered in a random drawing to win a 1-year subscription to AALR, a copy of Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s Magnetic Refrain (reviewed on our blog here), and a copy of our very own Henry W. Leung’s chapbook, Paradise Hunger.

But the APIA poetry love doesn’t stop there! Those of you who follow us on Facebook might remember seeing pictures of the “Poetry Starter Packs” from our AWP display this year—little envelopes containing prompts and ekphrastic/found inspiration that we handed out to passers-by in the bookfair. Well, if you weren’t able to make AWP (or even if you picked up a starter pack there, but want more to share), here is your chance: we’ll be giving away bundles of 5 poetry starter packs—some to keep, and some to share—to each of the first ten (10) people to enter!

To help get you thinking, we thought we’d ask some of our Issue 5 contributors what Asian American poets they’ve been reading or whose work they’d recommend to others this month. Here’s what a couple of them said.

From Ching-In Chen:

 I adore Larissa Lai’s Eggs in the Basement because she generated/mutated the whole body of language/the story from the actual language that she is playing with: “I generated a body of source text in a ten-minute automatic exercise, separated it as neatly as possible into subjects and predicates and wrote the poem by repeating first all the subjects and and cycling through the predicates in the first half, and then reversing the procedure for the second. Strangely, the result is loosely the story of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, in which two murders are committed by a collective: an initial one, which traumatizes the collective, and a second, which covers over the first and consolidates an violent and violated melancholy from which the group cannot escape.”  Next on my reading list is Paolo Javier’s The Feeling is Actual.  I witnessed Paolo’s live film narration of “Monty and Turtle,” on the Feminism Meets Neo-Benshi: Movietelling Talks Back panel at AWP recently, which explores the story of an Asian American artist couple, and loved what I saw!  After some discussion about the question about appropriation within neo/benshi practice, Paolo said that he dealt with this question by creating his own film clips to narrate to.  Though the film clips aren’t part of the book, his script is published in this book.

From Desmond Kon:

For a lecture I’m giving, I’m rereading Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu and published by Talisman House in 2000. In my research, I discovered Liu’s lovely essay titled, “Making the Case for Asian-American Poetry”, on Poets.org. I also just received Iris A. Law’s chapbook of wildly intelligent poems: Periodicity. These are lyric gems, some persona poems, that thread the imagined voices of great women scientists like Marie Curie, Rachel Carson and Anna Atkins. Finally, to throw in some fiction, I’m reading Tash Aw’s newest novel, Five Star Billionaire. The book intertwines the lives of migrant Malaysian workers, trying to eke out a living in Shanghai – this “Paris of the East” is at once bright lights and dog-eat-dog. In fact, Tash Aw is doing a reading at this awesome and intimate bookstore BooksActually, and I’m really looking forward to hearing him talk about the writing of his novel.

Our National Poetry Month giveaway will end at 11:59 PM EST on Monday, April 22nd. Winners will be announced the following week. Many thanks to our partners, Kaya Press and AALR, for their generous sponsorship, as well as to LR staff writer Henry Leung for donating a copy of his chapbook. We look forward to hearing from you, and hope that the comments that others leave in this thread will inspire you to read more Asian American poetry this April!

Best,

Iris & Mia

Digital Broadsides: Janine Joseph’s “Narrative,” Designed by Bethany Hana Fong

Download the "Narrative" Broadsides
"Narrative" (Click to visit the download page)

This week’s Digital Broadside, which features Janine Joseph’s “Narrative” from LR Issue 4, was designed by Bethany Hana Fong, an SF-Bay-Area-based artist and designer whose black and white portraits of her grandfather appeared in Issue 2. We love the way that the quirky, collage-like nature of Bethany’s design echoes the fractured whimsy of the narrative tellings in Janine’s poem. We also like the effect that designing each version (printable and wallpaper) in a different orientation had on the possibilities for reading the poem itself.  While the print version preserves the original (vertical) arrangement of stanzas, the wallpaper version floats them side-by-side into a matrix-like grid, so that the stanzas can be read in juxtaposition, as well as linearly. Both versions of Bethany’s beautiful design can be downloaded over at our “Digital Broadsides” page.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed our Digital Broadside series this April. And as National Poetry Month draws to a close, we hope you’ll consider telling us about what you did with the broadsides that you downloaded. Did you hang a copy somewhere unusual? Did your new wallpaper or cubicle decoration lead to any interesting conversations?  Did having a poem on your desktop or physical wall inspire you in your own writing life in some way? We’d love to hear your stories— leave us a comment, post a note on our Facebook Wall, or Tweet us to share!

Digital Broadsides: Kimberly Alidio’s “translation,” Designed by Kenji C. Liu

Download the "translation" Broadsides
"translation" (Click to visit the download page)

This week’s digital broadside download is actually two designs in one. Designer Kenji C. Liu has created two separate visions for Kimberly Alidio’s poem “translation” (from LR issue 2): not only has he designed a beautiful desktop wallpaper, featuring an image of a boat, but he’s also conceived of the printable version in such a way that it can be cut and folded into a miniature chapbook. Kenji (who’s a poet and past LR contributor himself, in addition to being a crackerjack graphic designer) had this to say about his decision to create a printable that requires an element of DIY:

The reason I decided to make an “interactive” broadside is I’m interested in making bookmaking as accessible as possible. The broadside is a great tradition that makes writing easier to distribute. I just wanted to take it one step further and demystify the book. This mini-chapbook is more in the DIY “zine” tradition but is also inspired by pocket poetry and “poems for all“. It is extremely easy to make, reproduce, and distribute. I hope others will use this format for their own poems, and leave them everywhere.

In the spirit of making it even easier to spread the poetry love, we’ve created a video tutorial demonstrating how to turn it into a book:

Both of Kenji’s beautiful designs can be downloaded at our “Digital Broadsides” page. Where will you leave a copy of your “translation” mini-chapbook?  As always, we would love to see a photo or hear a story.  Tag us on Facebook or on Twitter, leave a video response on YouTube, or send us an email at editors [at] lanternreview (dot) com.

Digital Broadsides: Neil Aitken’s “Memory,” Designed by Melissa R. Sipin

Download the "Memory" Broadside
"Memory" (Click to visit the download page)

This week’s digital broadside features Neil Aitken‘s poem “Memory” (from Issue 4), and was designed by Melissa R. Sipin, who’s a poet, a cofounder of TAYO, and a past LR contributor herself.  We asked Melissa if she would share some of her thoughts about her choice of Neil’s poem and how that led her design process, and here is what she had to say:

I was led to design Neil Aitken’s “Memory” because of the poem’s vivid play on the concept of memory and its correlation with “the sum of mere data.” It awoke something nostalgic in me, and I was organically drawn to these lovely lines: “What is memory? / And who is it that slips in at these odd hours … / Who is it that stirs upstairs in my mind … / Here, my father is alive again, once more…”

In the same breath, after learning the intent of Aitken’s poem and its connection with Charles Babbage, I researched the life of Babbage and began to design the poem organically. Designing tends to be a visceral experience for me, and as a result, the visual themes of absence and gradient holes took hold. I hope I designed a broadside that is pleasurable to Aitken and the heart of the poem.

I think it’s safe to say that Melissa has successfully captured at least our hearts with her gorgeously illustrated design!

Melissa’s lovely interpretation of “Memory” is available in two forms—as a printable .pdf, and as a  desktop wallpaper—and can be downloaded at our “Digital Broadsides” page. We hope that you’ll download both—and that, especially if you hang or leave a copy of the printed version in a public space, you’ll share a picture  with us (on Facebook, on Twitter, or by email), and tell us about any stories that might be generated when others encounter it.