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)

FOR THE CITY THAT NEARLY BROKE ME

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).

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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

1. “CON-VERSE-SATIONS”
(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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