Weekly Prompt: Tracing Barbed Wire

Photo courtesy of FreeFoto.com

This week’s prompt is about using features of the visual world as a way to write across historical moments, geographic space, and time.  This is a technique I’ve been using a lot in my recent work, and when putting the finishing touches on a fellowship application essay this week, I found myself articulating for the first time why this approach is such a powerful one.

At times, making poetry becomes a kind of transcendent experience.  Tracing certain images through time shows the way in which all experience is radically unified—by screens, wires, flashes of light, images of transubstantiation, to name just a few.

Thus the child sweating at night, afraid for her parents’ safety at the hands of a Communist government, is not as alone as she once thought.  She clenches her sheets, dreams of centipedes whose scaly bodies become an endless braid, and yet the pattern of her nighttime torment finds an uncanny double in the long stretch of wire wound and barbed around her grandparents in a 1945 American internment camp.

Different time and place, same image.  Same condition.  To me, this thinking represents a kind of radical, redemptive vision, one that suggests experience is not so fractured as we believe it to be.  By undoing logics of nation, political geography, and even chronology, it offers us an imaginative vision that is wholly other, wholly whole.

Your poem doesn’t need to trace as emotionally loaded an image as barbed wire or braided centipedes — the example I’ve chosen is an extreme one, used to illustrate the point that the visual qualities of our surroundings can actually echo past moments, other places, different realms of experience.  Tracing these features can reveal unexpected linkages between unexpected circumstances.

In some ways, this isn’t that different from using a person’s name, or a particular scent, as a way to shift the narrative frame of a poem from one setting to another.  It’s just that here, the “catalyst” is visual.

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Prompt: Write a poem that “shifts” in some way — through time, across space, between points of view, to show the unexpected relationship between separate worlds of experience.  Use a visual cue, object, or feature of the speaker’s surroundings to recall them to a different “place,” however you choose to interpret it.  If you like where the poem is going, let that same image lead to multiple shifts.  Pay attention to other visual features in the “worlds” you explore as well, but keep in mind that not all images are as rich with potential as some.

Post your ideas, attempts, or even just a short list of “visual cues” you think other readers/writers could use in tracing their poetry across experience.

Poetry in History: Engaging the Legacy of the Vietnam War

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with a few ideas that we hope will provoke you to respond. This is the final post in the series, and will feature the legacy of the Vietnam War.

A girl runs screaming down the highway, thick clouds of smoke billowing on the horizon. Burned flesh, bare feet, a haze of napalm: though Nick Ut’s (Associated Press, 1972) iconic image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from the smoldering remains of her village was shot almost forty years ago, it remains firmly lodged in the American visual and cultural memory.

The Vietnam War — or, as it is known in Vietnam, the “American War” — began in 1955 and “ended” in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, though its legacy has continued to enact violence of numerous forms on the bodies and minds of individuals and communities into the twenty-first century. War veterans marked by post-traumatic stress, victims of unexploded bombs living on the agrarian hillsides of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, urban communities of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States post-1975 — the list goes on. We’ve all seen the photos, but how much do we really know about the United States’ involvement in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia? A Cold War conflict which led to the displacement of millions, over the course of its twenty-year duration, millions of Lao and Vietnamese lives were lost, in addition to those of approximately 60,000 US military personnel. Continue reading “Poetry in History: Engaging the Legacy of the Vietnam War”

Editors’ Picks: Voices From Southeast Asia

Voices from Southeast Asia

While browsing the library for new voices in Asian American poetry, I came across the book Voices From Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States (Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1991).  Though the book is not new, it provides historic context for the experiences that have shaped and seeded much of contemporary Southeast Asian American poetry.  The 247-page volume is comprised of a series of oral histories, each of which features the life experience of a Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, or Cambodian refugee to the United States.  Though most of the book is written in prose, there are a few narratives in verse form.  The poem below, for example, was written by a Cambodian woman after her relocation to the Bronx.


They take us and put us in boxes to live.

Each family lives in the same kind of box […]

Our boxes are not all in the same building […]

So we talk on the telephone and imagine

what this person does and

how he lives in his box

and I tell him about life in my box.

This poem, probably one of the earliest instances of Southeast Asian American poetry, captures in simple, unsentimental, and uncomplicated terms the experience of resettlement in the United States by a faceless “they,” a “they” responsible not only for “tak[ing] us” from Cambodia, but “put[ting] us in boxes to live.”  In the speaker’s sense of disconnection, her need to construct an imagined community life, and attempts to communicate across fractured lines, one begins to identify the beginnings of Southeast Asian American poetry.

The accounts in the book are, as US Senator Edward Kennedy puts it, “full of the agony of exile, the disruption of the refugee camps, [and] the challenge of starting over.”  Since 1975, over a million Southeast Asians have settled in the United States, established communities across the country, and begun to shape the voice of contemporary Asian American poetry.  The question for Asian American poets writing today, both those of Southeast Asian descent and other ethnicities, is how to engage the concerns of their history and to move forward.

If, in your own writing, you have struggled to engage historical material (family myth, oral narrative, historical text) in verse, please share your experiences here.  What forms and methods have worked for you?  What dilemmas and/or points of resistance have you encountered?  We look forward to hearing your thoughts.