Turning “Chinese Silence” on Its Head: A Conversation with Timothy Yu

Timothy Yu and the cover of his book 100 CHINESE SILENCES. (Photo of Yu by Margarita Corporan)

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we interviewed leading scholar and poet Timothy Yu, author of 100 Chinese Silences (Les Figues Press, 2015), Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford, 2009), and the three chapbooks 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish Press, 2012), Journey to the West (Barrow Street, 2006), and Kiss the Stranger (Corollary Press, 2012). Yu is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he spoke with us, among other things, about the need for greater historical contextualization of Asian American poetry, the process of writing 100 Chinese Silences, and the vibrant relationship between his creative and scholarly work.

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LANTERN REVIEW: Within the literary and academic world, you function in a variety of roles. What’s it like to wear so many different hats? We’re especially curious about the ways in which these roles (poet, cultural critic, scholar, teacher, editor, etc.) overlap, or if there are times when you find them in tension with one another.

TIMOTHY YU: I’ve always written poetry, but for a long time my identity as a poet was peripheral to my professional identity as a scholar. I did a PhD in literature, not an MFA, and until pretty recently I never really published much of my poetry. There’s a lot I could say about this, but I think that it was my scholarly training, and in particular my study of Asian American poetry, that gave me a greater sense of confidence in my work, and ultimately a clearer sense of what I wanted my poetry to do.

But it was definitely a struggle along the way sometimes. In grad school, although quite a few of my classmates were also creative writers, there was an old-school sense among faculty that being a creative writer was not compatible with the “serious” identity of scholar. I kept my poetry going largely by finding a community outside of the university—I went to readings, joined a writing group, sometimes took creative writing workshops elsewhere during the summers.  

It’s really only in the past few years that my roles as poet and scholar/critic have begun to converge. A lot of that has to do with my finding a community of other Asian American poets through Kundiman. Although I had studied Asian American poetry for some years, I don’t think I began to see myself as an Asian American poet until I became a Kundiman fellow and saw what being part of an Asian American literary community could mean. I think this understanding has allowed my scholarly work increasingly to feed my creative work, which is basically what led to 100 Chinese Silences.  

Now I think I’m experiencing this wonderful feedback loop where my creative work is also pushing my criticism to new places. Probably the best example of this was in the controversy around Calvin Trillin’s poem in the New Yorker, Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” My response was both creative and critical: I wrote a parody of Trillin’s poem that was published on Angry Asian Man, which led to me getting interviewed on NPR, which was followed by my being asked to write an essay for the New Republic. And in that piece, I tried to combine my scholarly knowledge with the emotion I was feeling as a member of the Asian American poetry community—which I think made all the difference to its success.  

LR: You’re the author of the chapbook 15 Chinese Silences, which was published in 2012. Four years and eighty-five Chinese silences later, the book-length 100 Chinese Silences is in print. Can you tell us a bit about how this project evolved? How did it find its trajectory?

TY: The Chinese Silences began when Billy Collins came to Madison to do a reading. There were something like 1,200 people there! Anyway, Collins read a poem called “Grave,” in which he is standing at the graves of his parents, and he says that his father’s silence was like “the one hundred different kinds of silence according to the Chinese belief.” Now, I’m not an expert on all things Chinese, but that didn’t sound familiar to me. And then at the end of the poem, Collins admits that the idea of 100 Chinese silences was something he had “just made up.” In my annoyance, I immediately vowed that I would write these 100 Chinese silences, although at the time I didn’t know what I meant by that.

I started off by simply writing a parody of “Grave,” one that tried to turn the idea of “Chinese silence” on its head. I quickly discovered that Collins had, in fact, written a lot of poems about China (or Asia), and so I continued by parodying those poems. Collins provided me with more than enough material for the first fifteen poems in the series, which became the Tinfish chapbook 15 Chinese Silences.

I soon realized that the project, which had started off as a bit of a lark, was leading me into deeper waters, and that to explore them, I was going to need to move beyond Collins toward a broader investigation of how China and Asia are portrayed in contemporary American poetry and culture.  It turned out that there were many more poems than I expected, by a wide range of poets; some I just found by doing things like searching the Poetry magazine archives for “China.” The poems I found ranged from elegant invocations of Chinese poetry to cringingly offensive uses of stereotype and pidgin. After a certain point, people actually started sending me examples—“here’s a good one for you!”—and so I pretty much had an inexhaustible supply of material.

Of course, the tradition of poetic orientalism I’m exploring isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon; it goes at least back to the dawn of the 20th century and modernism, so at a certain point, I had to begin delving back into that earlier tradition. I did this a bit tentatively at first, starting with a parody of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” (No. 38) and eventually reaching back to modernism: Marianne Moore, W.B. Yeats, and, of course, Ezra Pound, whose poetry is the subject of the final dozen or so poems.  

So, the sequence unfolds pretty much in the order it was written, but that order does represent a fairly conscious movement from contemporary poems about Chinese stuff back to the modernist roots of American poetic orientalism.

LR: Given the book’s wide variety of source material, how did your creative process differ with poems responding to, say, Collins and Tony Hoagland (living, contemporary poets), as opposed to Marianne Moore and Pound (deceased, “canonical” voices)? Or did it? What about your responses to more journalistic sources, such as the speech by Newt Gingrich or David Sedaris’s piece on China?

TY: Rewriting Moore and Pound was certainly more intimidating than rewriting Collins or Hoagland! For the more contemporary writers, my tone sometimes bordered on the snarky. But of course, there was some element of reverence in my approach to figures like Moore and Pound, even as I was trying to mount a critique of their work. It’s probably why I put off grappling with them until much later in the series, when I felt I had more confidence in what I was doing.

Responding to some of the journalistic sources was actually fun, because those were the places in the series where I had a bit more freedom. Much of the series was written under fairly strong constraint; I strove to mirror the style and even the line structure of the originals. But with something like the response to Sedaris, I was able to play around more freely with the grotesque imagery of disgust Sedaris uses in his description of China. The most fun piece in this regard was No. 26, which collaged reporting on Wendi Deng (the then-wife of Rupert Murdoch, who made headlines by slapping down a protester who tried to hit Murdoch with a pie) to the tune of Blake’s “The Tyger.”

LR: How have audiences responded to 100 Chinese Silences?

TY: People seem to like and respond to these poems more than anything I’ve ever written—which of course I have mixed feelings about, since nearly all of them are rewritings of other poets’ work! But I think that is part of the project—trying to use the pleasure and humor of these parodies as a Trojan horse for a certain kind of critique.

I’ve been very gratified by the way that Asian American readers, in particular, have responded to the work—they’ve really embraced it warmly as a way of talking back to a certain tradition, which has been so important to my being able to complete it. I’ve heard a little skepticism from some readers about the way I take on certain poets, Pound in particular, who are not as easy targets as, say, Collins. I certainly think that the poems where I’m rewriting canonical writers are the riskiest and the most open to ambivalent interpretation.

LR: As a literary journal dedicated to the promotion and publication of Asian American poetry, Lantern Review has thought quite a bit about what it means to be an advocate for change in today’s literary climate. In your opinion, what is the most pressing cultural work that needs to be done right now?

TY: I think there is a growing awareness that the voices of people of color need to be heard, and indeed, need to be front and center, in contemporary culture, but there is also awareness of how far we are from having the kind of cultural discourse where that is the case. I think it’s absolutely vital for Asian American writers and other writers of color to continue to build their own spaces—whether that’s publications like Lantern Review or organizations like Kundiman—while also demanding more mainstream representation; the two are not mutually exclusive but go hand in hand. I also think it’s crucial for us to provide a greater sense of the history of racial discourse; the conversations and conflicts we’re having today are not new, but emerge from long histories and deep contexts. This is where I think scholars/critics and poets absolutely must be talking to and learning from each other. Simply having a sense that there is an Asian American literary tradition is an incredible boon to a young Asian American writer.

LR: What are some of the most exciting things happening in Asian American poetry today? What are you currently reading?

TY: The breadth and depth of what’s happening in Asian American poetry is just astonishing. To me, Asian American poetry is a space where the lyrical, the experimental, the performative, the political—things too often separated in the larger poetry world—can engage and infuse each other. Just looking at my nightstand, I see amazing new and recent books by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Brandon Shimoda, Khaty Xiong, Nicholas Wong; books by international Asian writers like Sarah Howe and Fred Wah. And the wider world is taking notice.

LR: After 100 Chinese Silences, what’s next? Can you tell us about any new projects currently underway?

TY: I’m working on a new sequence called Chinese Dreams, and yes, it’s another rewriting—this time of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. I’m fascinated and deeply troubled by Berryman’s framing of his anguished personal lyrics through racially stereotyped language, and I’ve been trying to see what I can do with that from an Asian American perspective.

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Timothy Yu is the author of 100 Chinese Silences, the editor’s selection in the Les Figues Press NOS Book Contest, and of Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford), winner of the Book Award in Literary Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies. He is also the author of three chapbooks: 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish), Journey to the West (Barrow Street; winner of the Vincent Chin Chapbook Prize from Kundiman), and, with Kristy Odelius, Kiss the Stranger (Corollary), and the editor of Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (Kelsey Street). He is professor of English and Asian American studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Two Reviews: Barbara Jane Reyes’s FOR THE CITY THAT NEARLY BROKE ME and Timothy Yu’s 15 CHINESE SILENCES

For The City That Nearly Broke Me by Barbara Jane Reyes | Aztlan Libre Press 2012 | $13

In my California, we know how to party. We Black Panther Party. We 2PAC and Dre. We Dime a Day, we Dollar a Dance. We Fillmore jazz. We Summer of Love. We Barbary Coast. We I-Hotel. We Chinatown. We North Beach howl.

In my California, we no Baywatch babe. We East Los, we South Central LA. We Rodney King video. We campesino. We mighty Sacramento River. Rooted deep sequoia giants, we lovin’ the wind, we kissin’ the sky.

(from “My California” 34)


I met up with Barbara Jane Reyes at Shooting Star Cafe in Oakland Chinatown to chat about her new chapbook For The City That Nearly Broke Me. The project started with a writing prompt: write about a city that saved you, then write about a city that broke you. As Barbara began to think about what it would mean “to be broken by a city,” she decided to approach it by writing about places that “were the most emotionally complicated for me.” The chapbook hovers over and between Manila (“my birthplace but not necessarily my home”) and Oakland, where she has been living for the past decade but is not sure she can claim as her own.

I resonated with what Barbara had to say regarding the internal conflict inherent in claiming place and claiming home. Many immigrants and children of immigrants struggle with a similar tension; our birthplaces (or our parents’ birthplaces), with their histories of colonization, are now tourist destinations, and both the industry of tourism and the good intentions of our families make it difficult for us to “forge a connection” with these places. In Barbara’s case, her “attempts to go deeper are thwarted” by the gaze of the tourist as well as by her own family, who implies that there are things about Manila she might not be able to handle, that “there is only so much we want you to see.”

The title poem of the chapbook has 17 parts, #3 of which, “Junto al Pasig,” references a José Rizal poem and talks about the Pasig River. Barbara spoke about the Pasig as a river that gives its name to the Filipino people, but a river that is also environmentally dead. Many squatter communities now make their homes around this dead river. Barbara’s “Junto al Pasig” illustrates the sacred decay of the river with a juxtaposition of two “streams,” in a sense; one of “giardia,” “DDT” and “blooming cholera” and another of divine incantation and “divina aurora” (5).

Continue reading “Two Reviews: Barbara Jane Reyes’s FOR THE CITY THAT NEARLY BROKE ME and Timothy Yu’s 15 CHINESE SILENCES”

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.

Editors’ Picks: Further Reading on the State of Asian American Poetry

In his review of Bao Phi’s book, which we posted yesterday, guest contributor Greg Choy made some particularly intriguing observations about shifting trends in Asian American poetry, especially with regards to its relationship with community-based activism.  The discussion about how best to engage with politics (and specifically, about whether to engage with identitarian politics) in our work is broad and ongoing, and in light of that, I thought I would follow up on Prof. Choy’s thoughts by pointing you towards a few insightful write-ups that provide additional perspectives on the matter.

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Julia Kuo's illustration of HYPHEN's Roundtable on Asian American Poetry
Julia Kuo's illustration of HYPHEN's Roundtable on Asian American Poetry

(Hyphen Magazine Roundtable with Timothy Yu, Victoria Chang, and Nick Carbo)

I appreciate the thoughtful dialogue to be had in this article with regard to Asian American poetry’s stylistic diversity, its audiences, its status both inside and outside of academia, and its current relationship to its activist roots. In particular, I think Tim Yu makes a spot-on observation that while, in the wave that immediately followed the 70’s, poets were more interested in the confessional mode than in political rhetoric, poets are now coming back towards the political, some through the overt expression of activist “creeds,” as is true in the spoken word scene, and others more quietly, by infusing their approaches to craft and subject matter with strong political undertones (Yu points to Ken Chen as an example of one such poet). “We’ve had two decades of Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin and these writers who really risk prominence writing about their own personal experience,” he says, but “that’s not where we are anymore.”  His claim is exemplified by the list of recommended titles the editors provide at the end of the article: from Cathy Park Hong to Barbara Jane Reyes to Ronaldo V. Wilson, the body of contemporary Asian American poets who are again engaging with the political (particularly through experimental forms) is strong, and seems to be growing.

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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. ”

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