Curated Prompt: Timothy Yu – “Travesty”

Timothy Yu
Timothy Yu

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Timothy Yu.

travesty, n. A literary composition which aims at exciting laughter by burlesque and ludicrous treatment of a serious work; literary composition of this kind; hence, a grotesque or debased imitation or likeness; a caricature. (OED)

I’m currently writing a sequence of poems called 100 Chinese Silences. The series was inspired, so to speak, by a poem by Billy Collins called “Grave,” which describes the “one hundred kinds of silence” that the Chinese believe in—only to admit that this idea is something the poet “just made up.” This made me mad—those darn quiet Asians!—so I decided to get even. Rather than replying to Collins’s poem, I rewrote it line by line and phrase by phrase.

I’ve decided to call this a travesty, a “ludicrous treatment of a serious work.” It takes a poem that plays on stereotypes and rewrites it from the inside out. It tries to critique without falling into easy anger or mockery.

So here’s your assignment:

Find a poem that really bugs you for some reason. Maybe, like Collins’s, it contains an annoying stereotype about Asians. Maybe it’s sexist or simply smug. Then rewrite it, line by line, preserving when possible the form of the original—the same number of lines, the same kinds of phrases, even the rhyme scheme if there is one—while filling it with content that reflects on, critiques, or undermines the original. The result should be a poem that could have been written by the original author but is “off” in some way. Don’t be afraid to be silly, but do strive to echo the tone of the original. Hopefully you’ll end up with something that can speak back to the original in its own voice.

Timothy Yu is the author of two chapbooks: 15 Chinese Silences, from Tinfish Press, and Journey to the West, winner of the Vincent Chin Memorial Chapbook Prize from Kundiman. He is also the author of a scholarly book, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford University Press). He is an associate professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Curated Prompt: Rick Barot – “The Hermit Crab Poem”

Rick Barot

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Rick Barot.

Once, I mentored a graduate student who had been obsessively reading the stories of survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings in World War II.  These stories were horrifying and moving by turns, and my student was consumed by them.  Because she was a poet, it was inevitable that her engagement with the stories would manifest itself in her work.  But here was the problem: she was a comfortably situated Caucasian woman who didn’t feel she had the right to write about this subject matter.  Even more complicated: she wanted to write poems directly in the voices of these survivors, making her use of the material doubly problematic.  Part of me, of course, wanted to advise the student to step away from the project, because it was simply too fraught with pitfalls that would make the project insurmountable at worst, and awful at the least.  But a larger part of me wanted to advise the student to move forward, which is what I did.

We artists get on a tightrope when we tackle subjects that are beyond the merely personal.  But far from ever trying to dissuade anyone from writing about these subjects, I urge them to head straight into those subjects.  The risks that come with any writing project are in fact the opportunities of that project: they are what make the project worth doing in the first place.  In poetry, there is no such thing as hands-off material.  A poem never fails because of its subject matter—it fails because the poet has inadequately given depth and shape to that subject matter.  Dramatic historical periods, natural disasters, grand personal wounds—writing about these subjects raises the stakes tremendously high when you have to write about them inventively, feelingly, thoughtfully.  You have to be ingenious to avoid failure—or, at the least, ingenuity will allow you to fail well.

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Curated Prompt: Luisa A. Igloria – “Poetry as Speculum”

Luisa A. Igloria
Luisa A. Igloria

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Luisa A. Igloria.

Writing poetry is always a little archaeological—we dig and sift not only through our fund of experiences and memories, but also through a variety of textual fragments. As a writer in the diaspora, I am always reminded that the past, history, is a hallucinatory presence right here with us; that our life in the contemporary moment is marked by the displacements that time is eternally enacting.

In the news, we encounter stories about all sorts of anniversaries and commemorations: recently, so many articles on Bin Laden’s capture and killing last year; but also, I read the reminder that my high school friend and classmate, James Balao (whose 51st birthday was April 19), has been missing for nearly four years now since his political abduction by state forces on September 17, 2008. And then, I learn that a former student and friend, and one of my daughter’s grade school teachers who has made a life in Japan these last ten years, walked out of her home and marriage a month ago, with three very small children in tow—and has not been seen or heard of since. How is it possible? I am disturbed. I am disturbed by these unexplained rifts in time, by the unforgivable absences of explanations. And because facts alone, even when they are available, cannot assuage the terrible depths of these displacements, I turn to poetry for some kind of response, if not relief.

Because we are all involved in the drift of time, displacement is a function of contemporary experience—it is not something reserved only for us in the diaspora or for those of us who live with the legacies of colonization. History is a field at once very large and very intimate. But I like to think of the past as not completely done, of history’s archives as not static; we can enter the archive, we can reconstruct and re-imagine events, we can insert ourselves as figures or characters into its landscapes.

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Curated Prompt: Karen An-hwei Lee – “Wind”

Karen An-hwei Lee
Karen An-hwei Lee

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Karen An-hwei Lee.

In Santa Ana, where I live, a curious wind rises only in autumn and winter. It is a hot, dry wind. Hair static. Restless dogs lie in the shade; quiet dogs are restless. In the “Los Angeles Notebook,” Joan Didion writes of the Santa Ana wind: “The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called ‘earthquake weather.'”

The wind is not named for any geographic origins here. Miles away, it starts with a downsweep of cool air that is slowly heated while crossing the high Mojave Desert into our valleys and coastal regions. Unsettling our routines, it sweeps across my city of gardeners and mission arches. Angelenos who spent their childhoods south of the Great Basin, who recall urban fires and great earthquakes, call it the “Santana.”

When the Santa Ana comes, the sun looms closer to the earth despite the winter solstice. Noon hangs, a sharp, angular hour, in the sky. Eucalyptuses toss dry leaves onto the asphalt, and no one sweeps them: no use. No one picks up broken pottery shards. Let the wind sweep everything clean, “for the wind blows wherever it pleases,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). After prayer, I close the shades, stay in the coolest room away from the lanai.

What is the tone of this wind?

I think of lines from “To the Tune of Wuling Spring” by the Song Dynasty woman poet Li Qingzhao. She was highly attuned to her surroundings, whether in days of plenty or of war and exile: “When flowers vanish / and wind ceases late in the day, / I am too tired to brush my hair.” Or these lines from her poem, “To the Tune of Sands of a Silk-Washing Stream”: “A far-off mountain range thins the falling dusk; / . . . as ineluctable pear blossoms, withering, wilt to fade.”

It is a desert wind, not a hurricane gale or a blizzard. As a girl, spending my childhood on an archipelago and two New England coasts, I experienced both of the latter. With the Santa Ana wind, tar paper tumbles in the road. I set out dishes to dry; a teaspoon of water vanishes. Night yields little relief as sea waves swell to the west. To the east, helicopters fly over spot fires in the hills and canyons where rough chaparral brush—yucca, black sage, manzanita—has weathered pre-blackened zones of controlled burning.

After moving to California, I learned two things.

With an earthquake, temblor-raised dust seeds the clouds, sending rain. After the Santa Ana calms, a fog always rolls in. I still do not know whether this is a sea fog or a land fog. On the coast, we have a phenomenon called a marine layer, so perhaps that is what this is. The temperature drops from the nineties to the seventies and even to the forties after sundown. I walk in the fog with my hair unbound and a fresh skirt, carrying mailed books in the welcome cool. Following a week of fire and smoke, I am grateful for the fog as a divine provision.

Prompt: Consider the rhythm of a wind you know well and write in this rhythm.

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she lives and teaches in southern California, where she is a novice harpist. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.

Friday Prompt: Erasure

Erasure
Erasing. Erasure. (In this case, some partially-erased lines from "The Raven").

Today’s prompt asks you to write an erasure poem. The exercise itself is straightforward and accessible: take a piece of text (any text), and erase, cut, or obscure words from it in order to excavate new constellations of sound, image, and meaning.  But the simplicity of this method belies both the complex political implications of the act of erasure and the aesthetically and critically evocative possibilities of its results.

On the level of craft and aesthetic practice, erasure is an exercise in creative disruption: it approaches a text not as an authoritative tome, but as a playground. It pulls apart syntax and meaning, joyfully discarding the scaffolding of the author’s original intent, in order to generate new and often delightfully spontaneous meanings from the chaos that results.  It gets our brains to think outside of existing constructions of language and argument, and playfully diffuses the authority of the published (public) page, instead placing agency and ownership of a text into the hands of the reader / artist who rearranges and re-imagines it.

On another level, though, the practice of erasure is also deeply subversive in a political sense. To author a text, to be among the ranks of those whose voices are heard in the public sphere (through public oratory, through publication), necessarily invests a speaker with a measure of social and cultural power, and so to engage in creating new texts by erasing portions of another one can be to participate in a type of protest against  formal systems of language and power.  The practice of erasing, or silencing, marginal voices is a tool that has long been wielded by those who seek to propagate and maintain systems of injustice, and so to uproot and disrupt, to excavate and re-write texts that come from unjust powers by erasing and reclaiming them is to turn that tool against itself.

Early this year,  I began reading Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, in which he uses the exercise of erasure to excavate and subvert the memoir of former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who in 1985 was revealed to have been a Nazi SS officer. Reddy’s (to quote Marjorie Perloff’s blurb) “using, abusing, recycling, and reformatting [of] Waldheim’s own words” in multiple, complex configurations destabilizes the authority of Waldheim’s text by deftly using the framework of its language to construct transient arrangements that are by turns at odds with, and at times, utterly irrelevant to, the presumed argument of the original memoir.  By doing this, Reddy enacts the shifting identities and masks that Waldheim claimed in his lifetime, laying bare the multiplicitous/duplicitous nature of the public persona he constructed for himself.  From the remains of Waldheim’s shredded sentences, Reddy carefully excavates and floats before us a man whose seems utterly alienated from—even coolly oblivious to—the import of his ostensible mission.  The narrative of peacemaking betrays itself, and, having splintered, the voice Reddy produces hovers in the space of the page, transmuted, antique, foreboding, and at times, almost faceless.

Reddy’s book is not the only erasure project that has caught my attention recently.  When I read LR Issue 2 contributor W. Todd Kaneko’s poem “Quarry” a couple of months ago, I was also deeply intrigued by its use of the technique.  First published to the blog 99 Poems for the 99 Percent back in January, “Quarry” engages in the unusual act of erasing portions of itself.  Kaneko cleverly uses HTML to apply black backgrounds to sections of the text, in order to make them appear to have been “blocked out” or “censored”—that is, until the reader highlights the missing text with his or her mouse, and the missing words are revealed.  “Quarry” thus exists as two simultaneous poems—the first, a public poem, notable for what it is missing, and the second, a “hidden” poem, which is accessible to the reader only if he or she possesses the curiosity to engage in some investigative work during the act of reading.

Indeed, asking the reader “dig” appears to have been at the heart of the Kaneko’s intentions for this piece. In the description that follows the poem, he writes:

I was thinking about how a writer often has to dig around in a poem
to figure out what it’s doing and what it wants to do. I was thinking
about how we kinda have to dig around in the OWS movement to figure
out what precisely is happening there. I was thinking about how so
much of this decade’s unemployment rates and economic woes are tied to
decisions and practices that people have been overlooking for decades.
I was thinking about using HTML to make a reader dig around in a
poem—use your mouse to select the text and unearth the rest of the
poem.

“Quarry,” then, in inviting the reader to reverse the poet’s act of self-erasure, brings us closer to the process of excavation inherent in creation and challenges the notion that to read uncritically and without careful investigation is to understand a whole picture (of a poem, of a political movement).  To generate meaning, the artist, the politician, the protester, must engage in a process of thoughtful culling and “digging”—but to responsibly interpret that meaning, the reader must also engage in excavation, too.  Neither art, nor politics, then, exists exclusively on the surface. It is only by digging through what has been hidden or erased that we can approach a fuller understanding of what we see before us (whether dinosaur, poem, or  protest).

Prompt: Create a poem from the words of another text by erasing portions of the source until something new and evocative is generated.  OR, create a poem that engages in doubling back on, negating, or even physically erasing, portions of itself.

Friday Prompt: “The child thought it strange . . .”

January. The living room window.
January. The living room window.

We start 2012 with a prompt that was suggested to us by one of our former staff writers, Supriya Misra.

After reading Richard Meier’s poem “[Untitled] The child thought it strange” in Poets.org‘s Poem-a-Day newsletter, Surpriya was so struck by the opening line that she emailed us to share it. “I think the first line of this poem would make an amazing poetry prompt!” she wrote.

We couldn’t agree more. Hence, today’s Friday Prompt.

Prompt: Write a poem that begins with some part or variation of the line: “The child thought it strange to define words with other words.”

To read the rest of Richard Meier’s poem,  click here.

Friday Prompt: Poetry & Action

Molly Gaudry at Page Turner
Molly Gaudry reads during the Poetry Showcase at the AAWW's 2011 Page Turner Festival

This week’s prompt is inspired by the Asian American Writers Workshop’s 2011 Page Turner Festival, which I attended two weekends ago in Brooklyn, NY.

An unexpected winter storm swept into town on the morning of the festival, pummeling Brooklyn with high winds and dumping snow and sleet all over the streets, but despite the merciless weather, a surprisingly large crowd of attendees bundled up and came out to watch panel after panel of writers light up the interiors of Powerhouse Arena and Melville House.  All through the morning and afternoon, each event was packed; by the time I arrived at Melville House to catch the Poetry Showcase (my favorite, and last event of the day before I had to rush home to snow-covered NJ), the colorful, cozy performance space was standing-room only.

I’ve been to plenty of readings and conferences before, but never to a literary festival that felt this driven by a searingly-clear, single vision.  Throughout the day, the one theme that continued to impress itself upon me again and again was the AAWW’s deep, active commitment to the political—from the reflections of the poets on the Occupy Wall Street panel about the critical and aesthetic possibilities of poetry shared by “human mic”  to the powerful photographs and testimonies shared by the CultureStrike participants who visited Arizona in the wake of  SB 1070—I was continually struck by AAWW’s unique vision for how the work of the artist can simultaneously inhabit the page and reach beyond it into world in a very physical, practical way.

Today’s prompt comes from that same sense of vision, and invites you to play with figurations of craft that “break” from the construct of the page-bound poem in order to tangibly evoke discussion and action within your immediate community.

Prompt: Construct, organize, present, and/or distribute a political “act of poetry” whose craft and form reaches beyond the written page to invite others to physically and verbally interact with, respond to, and share in its promulgation and completion.

Friday Prompt: Answering Questions

Burning through the fog
"Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind." - Natalie Goldberg

In one chapter of her beloved book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg urges young writers to  “Make Statements and Answer Questions.”  I’ve taught her chapter on the importance of being specific before, but I decided to add this chapter to my syllabus for the first time this Fall, and as the semester has progressed, I’ve been finding myself returning to the raw courage of its advice again and again—both in my teaching, and in my own writing.  In “Make Statements and Answer Questions,” Goldberg observes that many young writers (and indeed, experienced writers, too) feel timid about putting their ideas out into the world, and so, in their hesitancy, they often fill their writing with questions and indefinite statements (“Isn’t that terrible?” “Maybe she’s right”).  There is indeed something quite vulnerable about the act of writing for an audience—of making a claim and expecting others to listen to it.  To do so requires boldness, a kind of brash willingness to allow one’s own ideas to stand alone, at the risk that one’s audience might not agree.  Goldberg encourages us to cut the apron strings, so to speak, by challenging ourselves to confidently answer each question we find ourselves asking: “Making statements,” she writes, “is practice in trusting your own mind, in learning to stand up with your thoughts” (93-4)  And later:

“Don’t be afraid to answer the questions. You will find endless resources inside yourself. Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind. Don’t carry the fog out on paper. Even if you are not sure of something, express it as though you know yourself. With this practice, you eventually will” (94).

Call it the partner to the questions prompt that Mia posted in 2009, if you will: today’s prompt was inspired by Goldberg’s call to write with confidence.

Prompt: Write a poem consisting entirely of answers to questions. Try to mix answers to small, concrete questions (such as “May I have a second slice of cake?”) with answers to bigger, nearly unanswerable questions (like “What do trees do when they feel cold in winter?”).

Curated Prompt: Jon Pineda – “Caesura”

Jon Pineda

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week’s installment was contributed by Jon Pineda.

Once, for training purposes at my job, I had to practice setting up an extension ladder mid-span, into that near empty space between telephone poles.  This space is usually connected by a cable lashed to a thin, metal strand.  At the top of the extension ladder are swiveled hooks for resting on the strand itself, so that there will at least be some resistance when it comes time to ascend the rungs, and then—once at the top, roughly twenty feet up—to attach the leather harness belt.  Then you simply lean back.  Ahead, there is nothing but the sky in front of you.

Though in that particular moment, suspended high above the ground, I was, of course, thinking about my physical safety, I couldn’t help thinking about other things as well.  That sky in front of me, for one.  It felt as though I could have fallen easily into that space.  Later, as I was working on a poem, I found myself thinking a lot about the caesura: the pause that usually occurs within a line of a poem.  I have always been interested in how this visual and aural delay aids in securing and distancing sections of imagery, so that the presence of a caesura is immediately felt by the absence it evokes.

Consider the first section from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Practice”:  “To weep unbidden, to wake / at night in order to weep, to wait / for the whisker on the face of the clock / to twitch again, moving / the dumb day forward— // is this merely practice?”  Voigt begins with a list of infinitives, each separated by a comma.  The reader is carried along by the undulant churning of each subsequent infinitive pushing into the next.  Then, the arrival of the dash halts the momentum just prior to the speaker’s question, “is this merely practice?”  The caesuras become a place that simultaneously allow the reader to rest within the pause and yet momentarily resist the unfolding tension of the poem.

I am grateful to Eileen Tabios for her contribution in resurrecting the work of the Filipino poet José Garcia Villa.  In The Anchored Angel, a book thoughtfully edited by Tabios, I first encountered Villa’s elaborate use of the comma, and I remember feeling confused and yet oddly at ease by this rush of punctuation.  In my mind, I kept hitting against the commas, until the words that preceded them became buffers for the next.  At that point, I settled into each word, pausing before and after:  “The, red-thighed, distancer, swift, saint, / Who, made, the, flower, principle, / The, sun, the, hermit’s, seizures, / And, all, the, saults, zigzags . . .” (from Villa’s poem “The Anchored Angel”).

In both examples I feel a presence at work.  Each point of pause tests the strength of the line.  It lets me, the reader, live in the suspension for just a little while longer.

Prompt: Write a poem that prominently features a caesura (or a number of caesuras).  Make the absence essential.

Jon Pineda is the author of the memoir Sleep in Me, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and a Library Journal “Best Books of 2010” selection.  His poetry collections include The Translator’s Diary, winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark, selected by Ralph Burns as winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and this summer, he will join the faculty for the Kundiman Asian American Poets Retreat held at Fordham University.  His poem “[we left the camera]” appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.

Curated Prompt: Stephen Hong Sohn – “Food Pornography Poems”

Stephen Hong Sohn

This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have been asking teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week, in acknowledgement of the fact that the work of reading and theorizing Asian American poetry is as important as the work of writing it, we’re changing things up a bit by adding a perspective from the world of literary criticism to the mix.  For today’s Curated Prompt, we have the privilege of collaborating with one of our regular guest contributors—Asian American Literature scholar and Stanford professor Stephen Hong Sohn—as he writes about one of his aesthetic interests and shares, for the very first time, a sample of his own (hitherto secret!) creative work.

Alexis Kienlen’s She Dreams in Red begins with my favorite kind of poem: the “food pornography” poem, which immediately problematizes issues of authenticity and Asian American identity. The lyric speaker often contemplates ethnic heritage as routed through her mixed-race background. What does it mean to so unabashedly crave ethnic foods, the lyric speaker seems to ask?  What can one claim ownership over, and what can one not?

Here is an excerpt from the opening poem, entitled “Chinese Café”:

“i want to savour pork dumplings,
dribble hoisin, garlic and black bean sauce over rice,
want to twist and drip noodles into my mouth,
lick my lips” (11).

The ending of the poem leaves us with this line: “this Chinese café stays open all night,” and we, as voracious readers, couldn’t really be happier.

Marking ethnicity is always a challenge within poems, but many Asian American poets such as Li-Young Lee and Aimee Nezhukumatathil have been able to explore gastronomic tropes with much complexity, and often with much humor.  At once, we understand that food can mark ethnicity, but that it can also be deconstructed or employed to complicate superficial consumptive habits. Food also provides a particularly rich terrain of vocabulary. As someone who can’t cook myself, I find cookbooks endlessly fascinating and endlessly ethnic. Frank Chin once made a scathing critique of writers who employ food pornography as a way to mark themselves as native informants, but it’s difficult to know when excess is intended or not. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll intend to push this excess, as Kienlen does when craving those “wontons” and “custard tarts” (11). Here is a food pornography poem I’d like to share:

Vietnamese food pornography poem #2: the sacred and profane

on this misted early morning
the haze ever so beta-particulate
japan’s nuclear crisis compared to Chernobyl
but culinary erotics distract me
the sensuous curve of the baked egg tart from Kang Lac
hand pressed pork puffs and steaming pork buns
so coy under the dim lights of Asian Garden Mall
Yum Cha Café boasts the understated elegance
of coconut crusted mochi balls with taro curd filling
flirtatious with such pliant, feathered skins
next door, Bánh Mi Saigon delivers me
into succulent hybridities: liver pâté, cold cut meats,
pickled carrots and turnips, all on French baguettes
postcolonial oriental cosmic

can i be so apolitically gastronomic
in these electromagnetic times
what intersections do i allow at Bolsa and Magnolia?
vendors at food stalls gesture in Vietnamese
frown, furrowed brows, shrugged shoulders
i profess that i am purely Korean
retreat into a bustling noodle shop
where my psychic sukiyaki emits a spectral glow,
brains scrambled in sinewy ramen, measured in sieverts
tripe floats on radioactive, soupy currents
bulgogi strips infesting this curry-flavored broth
as i later salt my phở with iodine and wasabi

Now, let’s see your version of a “food pornography” poem.

Prompt: write a poem that engages greedily, lasciviously—even pornographically—with the sensual pleasures of consuming “home” or “ethnic” foods in order to challenge, reimagine, or push familiar culinary markers of ethnicity into the realm of playful excess.

* * *

Stephen Hong Sohn is an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University.