Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)

Books We're Looking Forward to in 2014, Part 1It’s the first month of the new year, and so much news about exciting new books has come across our desk of late that we thought we’d put together a couple of roundup posts in order to put some of the titles that we’re most looking forward to reading in the coming year on your radar.  In today’s post (part 1), I’ll be discussing six recently published titles (five full-length books and one chapbook) that have made top priority on my to-read list for 2014. Part 2 (which will follow next week) will focus on forthcoming books that are due out in 2014.

Note: the books discussed below appear alphabetically by author; the order in which they’re listed does not reflect any sort of ranking or order of preference. (We’re equally excited about all of them!)

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The Arbitrary Sign by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Red Wheelbarrow, 2013)

Desmond Kon is a two-time contributor to LR (his work appears in both issue 1 and issue 5), and both times that we’ve published him, Mia and I had a really hard time choosing just two of the poems he’d sent in each batch. Desmond’s work interests itself in philosophy, visual art, pop culture, and the sounds and textures of language: he is interested in dadaism and in other forms of the avant-garde, and has a unique gift for finding the music in both “high” language (such as academic jargon) and “low” forms of speech—slang, text speak, gossip column patter. The genius of his poems lies in their polyglot nature—the way that he mixes contrasting modes of speech and weaves easily in and out of a variety of languages. His pieces work because there is a delightfully haphazard quality to their approach, a lightness that plays against both the weight of the poems’ scale and subject matter and the deliberate care with which the poet has gathered, built up, and sculpted their many intricate layers of texture and pattern. Desmond, a highly prolific writer, has published multiple chapbooks (both in the US and in his home city-state of Singapore) and has a long list of journal and anthology credits to his name—and for good reason. I’ve no doubt The Arbitrary Sign—a philosophical twist on the form of the classic alphabet book—will be as delightful as the rest of his body of work.

For a sneak peek at The Arbitrary Sign, head on over to Kitaab to read six of the poems that appear in the collection.

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Kala Pani by Monica Mody (1913 Press, 2013)

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long while now. Monica wrote for us as a staff reviewer from 2010 through 2011, and we later had the privilege of getting to publish a poem of hers in issue 4. Her work is deeply invested in myth and parable, and the textures of her writing are rich and sinuously complex—by turns liquid and transparent, and by others, knotty and grotesque. She has an exceptionally keen ear for music and magic, both of which suffuse her work.  I had the pleasure of getting to read and workshop portions of Kala Pani back in 2009. It is a hybrid piece (partway between poetry and prose) that takes up the narrative of a group of world travellers who converge around an ancient tree.  In it, the poet deftly plies together the fibers of what at first appears to be an allegory-like story, only to tease and unspun these threads mid-strand and remake them again (differently) in the next breath. What I admired most about the manuscript when I saw it in workshop was the way in which the tapestry of the piece’s language shatters and shifts at a moment’s notice—like quicksilver. Monica is a brilliant critical thinker, in addition to being a talented poet, and it shows in the deeply intelligent nature of her writing: though she is keen to investigate notions of trauma,  geography, time, race, gender, spirituality, etc., her writing neither preaches endlessly nor holds to an overly simplistic view of the political: rather, she holds questions up to a mirror, testing them on a knife’s edge. She recognizes that the notions of place and identity are inherently fraught with instability, and she both celebrates and problematizes this complexity: the characters of which she writes transform and bleed into one another, metamorphose and cycle back to avatars of themselves, over and over again, in many different ways. It’s been a couple of years since 1913 first announced that it had acquired Kala Pani, and now that the book is finally out, I can’t wait to read the finished product.

Excerpts of Kala Pani can be found at The Volta, the Boston Review, and Lies/Isle.

Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)”

Review: Two Works by Ronaldo V. Wilson

Ronaldo V. Wilson
Two Works by Ronaldo V. Wilson

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Manby Ronaldo V. Wilson | U of Pittsburgh Press 2008 | $14

Poems of the Black Objectby Ronaldo V. Wilson | FuturePoem Books 2009 | $15

Stephen Hong Sohn
Stephen Hong Sohn

In this review, I discuss Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press 2008) and Poems of the Black Object (FuturePoem Books 2009). Wilson’s first full-length poetry collection might be more specifically described as prose poetry, as implied by its title. There are really no formal line breaks throughout the collection, so one is forced to consider what makes such a work poetry as opposed to prose. This genre-defying work’s title also clearly derives inspiration from two canonical African American literary texts: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In Wilson’s title, there isn’t any mention of the word “slave,” but the impulse to explore the conditions of subjection and domination are still very much there. Wilson’s work thus seems to enact a neo-slave “poetic” as derived through the queer racial minority’s subjectivity. The reference to the “brown boy” and the “white man” in the title also helps situate what actually occurs in the prose poetry blocks throughout the collection. “Brown boy” suggests that the lyric “I” is a mixed-race subject and likely an adult, but clearly one who does not have much access to economic resources. He is engaged in a homosexual relationship with “White Man,” someone likely older and with clearly far more money than the “Brown Boy.” Racial difference, class difference, and age difference, among other such distinctions, generate the rubrics of power and domination that mark the tension between “white man” and the “brown boy.”   Wilson’s work is raw, dense, and does not shy away from difficult topics, as demonstrated by the following excerpt, which is fairly indicative of the stylistic impulses of the collection:

“Go Shower. This command reveals [the brown boy’s] relationship to the white man. He follows his lover’s orders like a slave without anything but the promise of being fed and shown a movie” (64).

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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.

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

Review: Shin Yu Pai’s ADAMANTINE


A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai | White Pine Press 2010 | $16

Adamantine, as the title reflects, is a collection filled with luster, gleaming with deep insight, and further characterized by an ethereal landscape, focused on emotional connections, on spirituality, on death, and on the afterlife.  Pai’s work travels both within and outside of ethnic and racial frames, thus complicating any transparent categorization of the collection as “Asian American” literature.

Stephen H. Sohn

Nevertheless, the political character of many of her poems does make Adamantine speak to many of the field’s traditional concerns.    I begin this review further into the collection, with what I believe is the larger project of the work.   In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture,”  Pai’s lyric speaker considers the responsibilities of one who chronicles the lives of others:

of the witness
the I of the commentator

grubby children at the rim
of a Guatemala dump
stunned orphans in Russia (76)

The homonyms of “eye” and “I” function in different contexts, both on the level of ‘one who watches’ and ‘one who speaks.’ The following lines accordingly consider the issue of witnessing, with respect to the plight of global poverty. What is the responsibility of the lyric speaker, Adamantine continually asks, with respect to voice and sight?  In that vein, I’d like to concentrate on one of the overall lyric approaches that Pai takes, which is to place current events and historical figures in comparative perspective.  As part of Pai’s relational approach, the collection opens fittingly with an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost.  The passage from which Pai excerpts refers to prayers and mantras and explores how such spiritual inscriptions speak to individual loss and to aesthetic beauty.  At the same time, by invoking Anil’s Ghost, Pai sets Adamantine firmly within a tradition that queries human rights and global conflict.  Perhaps we are not surprised, then, when we find that the first poem’s title is “This is not My Story,” as if to immediately query the autobiographical impulse of the confessional lyric.   The lyric stories of “Adamantine” are often those of Asian or Asian American figures who move beyond the speaker, including Thich Quang Duc in “Burning Monk,” where the lyric speaker repeats, as a kind of mantra, “his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn” (19).  Of course, Thich Quang Duc is most famously known for his self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War.  The use of the word “heart” arcs out across this collection.  We are reminded in the very first poem, “This is not my Story,” that the “human heart is / a wholly different animal, / we must sense when to give in / before the other gives up” (11).  The importance of emotion and affect imbues the lyric speaker with a kind of power, leading her toward a pathway that involves spiritual reawakening.  Another figure invoked is James Kim, the Korean American who died tragically when he and his family were caught in a winter snowstorm in Oregon. The lyric speaker gestures again to loss, but contextualizes his death within the frame of sacrifice, as James had attempted to situate help for his family despite the possibility that he could have succumbed to the austere weather conditions.

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On The Small Press and Asian American Poetry: A Focus on Four Way Books

Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List
Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Stephen H. Sohn
Stephen H. Sohn

In thinking about the so-called state of contemporary Asian American poetry, I am most struck by the issue of the proliferation of small presses that have remained afloat through print-on-demand publication policies and through the strategic limited print-run system.  American poets of Asian descent have certainly been a beneficiary of this shift as evidenced by hundreds of poetry books that have been published within the last decade.  In 2008 alone, there were approximately 20 books of poetry written by Asian Americans, the majority of which were published by independent and university presses.  Of course, on the academic end, the vast majority of Asian American cultural critiques, especially book-length studies, have focused on narrative forms, but the last five years has seen a concerted emergence in monographs devoted (in part) to Asian American poetry, including but not limited to Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (2006), Interventions into Modernist Cultures (2007) by Amie Elizabeth Parry, Race and the Avant-Garde by Timothy Yu (2008), and Apparations of of Asia by Josephine Nock-Hee Park (2008).  As a way to gesture toward and perhaps push more to consider the vast array of Asian American poetic offerings in light of this critical shift, I will be highlighting some relevant independent presses in some guest blog posts.  I have typically worked to include small press and university press offerings in my courses, having taught, for example, a range of works that include Sun Yun Shin’s Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press), Eric Gamalinda’s Amigo Warfare (WordTech Communications), Myung Mi Kim’s Commons (University of California Press), Timothy Liu’s For Dust Thou Art (Southern Illinois University Press).

In this post, though, I will briefly list and consider the poetry collections by American writers of Asian descent that have been put out by Four Way Books (New York City), headed by founding editor and director, Martha Rhodes—and will spend a little bit more time discussing Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).   Currently, Four Way Books’ list is comprised of:

Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004)

Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light (2005)

C. Dale Young’s Second Person: Poems (2007)

Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s Shadow Mountain (2008)

Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).

Were I to constellate the commonalities between these five collections, it would be clear that the editors at Four Way Books are very committed to the lyric approach to poetry, in which the connection between the “writer” and the lyric speaker seems more unified.  I have taught Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light in the past, specifically for my introduction to Asian American literature course.  What I find most productive about this collection is its very focused attention on “lyrical issues” of the mixed-race subject.  In The Price of Light, one necessarily observes how distance from an ethnic identity obscures any simple claim to authenticity and nativity.  In The Price of Light, a lyric speaker returns to one vexing question: what does it mean to be Thai?  To answer this question, the reader is led through a unique odyssey, where issues of poetic form, tourism, and travel all coalesce into a rich lyric tapestry.

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