Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

Continue reading “Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010”

Review: Sasha Pimental Chacón’s INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED


Insides She Swallowed by Sasha Pimental Chacón | West End Press 2010 | $13.95

Sasha Pimental Chacón’s debut collection, Insides She Swallowed, brims with ripe, unusual images that linger long after each poem.  She explains that the collection is based “on what we consume in order not be consumed ourselves”, and powerfully portrays these ideas with vivid, tangible examples of both physical and metaphorical consumption – recurrent images of life, of seeds and ripe fruit and blooming plants, of animals and the natural world, of the human body as both intimate and gross, in a constant celebration of beauty and biology.

Chacón frequently uses present-tense verbs to evoke a sense of action, creating a quick pace that makes her pieces perfect to read aloud.  Her sharp and precise language propels her poems forward. The first poem, “Learning to Eat”, opens with “A pomegranate / is opened like this: / gutted like a fish, / its entrails glow.” She doesn’t gloss over her images. The reader is presented with both the picturesque and the grotesque exactly as they are. The images may not always be beautiful, but they are always apt.

What stands out is her ability to capture these images just at the moment at which they burst from their own confines and blossom into something beyond themselves. Her poems call to the senses: they feel like they can be touched, smelled, tasted. She uses a lot of color, especially brown skin that reminds the reader whose stories she tells and grounds the pieces in the reality of the Filipino American experience. The history and connection to working the land can be seen by frequent references to slaughtering animals at home, and in the third section of “Childhood Parts” she writes, “Seeing the brownness of our joints, did she / think of a wet chicken’s leg, how to pull / the limb from the socket, how easily.” Chacón carefully and intentionally selects images that are rooted in the very identities they portray.

Many of the pieces in Insides She Swallowed meditate on the roles of family/community and of shared memories, taking advantage of the child’s perspective and childlike wonder to make observations that might otherwise remain unsaid. In “Bamboo” the speaker is able to share her mother’s grief over her dying grandfather and the way it brings them together to “ignore the twenty-one years we have held our emotions / like women, like bamboo cupping rainwater in a storm.” She captures the ways in which women often deny and suppress their own feelings as well as the ways in which those feelings may eventually spill over. But most of the poem is spent imagining what her mother might be thinking without talking about it, with lines such as “She counts the memories / she will never have because she moved West” and “My mother thinks of her father’s changing body, / how it breaks like a chicken’s wishbone / in the dampened handkerchief of his bed.” In this way, she shows the ways emotions are hidden and revealed within families.

Chacón possesses a keen insight for the observed but unstated, unafraid to tackle any issue from the personal to the political. “Blood, Sister” is one of her boldest pieces, a social commentary on the state of impoverished women in Manila. In the first section, the speaker observes women on the streets and  addresses them as “Blood Sister” even as she observes how they differ: “often, you are outside of them, and they are inside the car, / bus, or pedicab: they / are going somewhere / –you are not, and they refuse your drink  because / you are not clean.” As the sections progress, the speaker seeks commonality with these women and acknowledges the slim luck that separates her from them with, “Had you my father with his passports […] would you be / very different from me?” Throughout this piece, the speaker confronts the status and privilege that now separate her from the women of her motherland. In the end, she loses as much as she gains. Her ending lines resonate:

and I am eating you

because you take my place

in the streets.

You fill my mouth

because I am empty

of memory, birthright,

the bruise of begging,


and this is hunger, this is hunger.

Chacón has a powerful ability to convey meaning with little explication. Her poems are often personal, exploring the relationships within one’s family and community as well as how the Filipino American identity may be at odds with the traditional Filipino or American ones.  She fearlessly paints the truth in its raw form,  inundating the senses with a rapidity, grittiness and sensuality that, ultimately, leaves the reader satiated.