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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The Page Transformed: Fiona Sze-Lorrain on Ekphrasis

Man Ray's "Larmes"
Man Ray's "Larmes"

As we continue our exploration of ekphrastic poetry, poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain, whose first book (Water the Moon) we reviewed last month, graciously answers some questions that we’ve posed to her about the ekphrastic elements of her collection.


LR: How do you envision your work with ekphrasis with respect to the larger arc or project of Water the Moon?

FSL: Ekphrasis is indeed one of the many channels I turn to for building the muscle of my imagination. The Greeks say, “In the beginning was the verb.” How about “In the beginning was the image”? I remember having read — a long time ago — an interview with the French theatre artist, Ariane Mnouchkine, who (probably influenced by the Japanese theatre philosopher and pioneer, Zeami) perceived emotion as coming from recognition, which is an useful perspective for actors. In a way or another, I too define my experience of ekphrasis as emotion coming from recognition… for instance, by recognizing something in paintings that can transform descriptive clues to deceptively personal/emotional landscapes or narrative possibilities. Part of the larger arc of Water the Moon is about dialogues with artistic voices or consciousness that follow me like shadows over time. Steichen, Van Gogh, Dora Maar, Man Ray… these happen to be just some of them whose iconic images play a role in molding my sensibilities since a child.

LR: In “Steichen’s Photographs,” you write “Photos have no verbs . . . / . . .Verbs are those trying not to pose” (58). Indeed, it seems that your ekphrastic engagement with photography in the collection is more immediate in nature than your engagement with other artistic media, like painting — for example, in “Van Gogh is Smiling,” you continually invite a reconstruction of his iconic images, “Let’s imagine fifteen sunflowers” or “Let’s retrace your starry blue night” (51), rather than delivering a direct experiential response to a particular work. In what ways does the camera’s eye provide a different type of visual or interpretive experience than other forms of visual art (e.g. painting, sculpture)?  How did these differences influence your decisions about craft and perspective?

FSL: Perhaps this is just a personal preference. I am married to a man who knows much about the world and craft of photography. By chance and good fortune, I have also crossed paths with the work of a few important photographers of our times. So I tend to feel more intimate with photographs, though paintings, to be honest, always offer me the contemplative space whenever I need it. Photographs — less so. They tend to be more visceral for me, and contain specific social realities that I can more easily identify with or pinpoint. As you can see, the cover image of my new book of poetry, Water the Moon (italics) is also a photograph. (It is entitled “Cortona,” taken by American photographer, Blake Dieter, in Italy). The clock in it is a metaphor of the Moon – in terms of time. I like films tremendously too and sometimes imagine photographs as immortalised snapshots from an unknown film. In general, it is harder for me to be oblique when writing about photographs than about paintings. You do not see something just because it is visible. There must be something else. What is it? I don’t know.

LR: Both “Steichen’s Photographs” and “Larmes” balance deftly on the seam between the perceived and the perceiver — in other words, we are made aware of the strange subjectivities at work when our gaze as readers is directed towards the speaker, whose observations become the subject of the poem as a piece of art, even while she herself is engaged in a process of fixing another artist’s subject in her own gaze. How can ekphrasis be of use to both the poet and the reader of poetry as an exercise in gaze, perspective, and subjectivity?

FSL: Ekphrasis (like any form of writing) is all about distance, because ultimately even if emotion must come from recognition, there comes a distilled point when the lie of the expression becomes evident: the artist, the painting, the poem, the writer, the reader, the reading … all these can never exist in one same space of subjectivity. “Let it not be the medium we question but the man — painter and photographer,” summed up Sadakichi Hartmann in “A Monologue” that was published in Camera Work in 1904, around the time of Steichen’s early photography. If anything, what ekphrasis offers is a bridge between various agendas, intentions and temporalities, based on an unchanging image. This bridge is dynamic — it constructs and deconstructs itself all the time. Besides, no one gaze is identical. I suppose it really is just simply the evocative power of an image that defines what we would call ekphrasis. At least this is what I feel – for now…

To read more about Fiona Sze-Lorrain, please visit her web site.   Water the Moon was released by Marick Press in February 2010 and is available for purchase on their site.

Editors’ Picks: Fiona Sze-Lorrain Interviewed by Retort

Melbourne-Based Retort Magazine

We were recently given a heads’ up about this fascinating interview in Retort Magazine that Singaporean poet Desmond Kon conducted with Fiona Sze-Lorrain (whose book, Water the Moon, we reviewed earlier this year).  [Thanks, D.K., for the link!]

Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Here’s an excerpt (Sze-Lorrain on place and geography in her work):

Places permeate my writing since you may say that I am someone of travels — in exile and displacement, so-called. I’ve traveled, yes, and at times, without a choice, but I am never a tourist. Pierre Nora sees places as sites of memories; I see places as moments and years. I thought that writing about places as memories risks falling into the trap of flat sentimentalism, or a re-invention of the past. Unlike most artists in exile who eschew geographical precision, I look towards the porosity of borders — both physical and temporal — for inspiration. Otherwise, places are no different from identities, and any kind of identity will never fail to imprison souls.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.   Also worth checking out is the latest issue of Cerise Press, a magazine that Sze-Lorrain creates and edits with Karen Rigby and Sally Molini. It’s an intriguing space that beautifully mixes translation, art, and lyric — and is well worth the read.

Review: Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s WATER THE MOON


Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain | Marick Press (forthcoming 2010) | $14.95

From the opening poem of her debut collection, Fiona Sze-Lorrain explores both her ancestral and adopted homes from many lenses, including poems that capture the simple moments of a meal or walk down the street as well as poems that embed those moments in the grandeur of history and tradition.  This juxtaposition of the personal with the past serves as a poignant reminder of the ways in which history informs individual identity, yet in “A Talk with Mao Tse-tung” she writes, “Clearly history has no last word” and ends the poem with unanswered questions.  She reminds the reader that the personal also goes beyond the past and that each person has to find her own answers. In “The Sun Temple”, the speaker revisits the historic Sun Temple with her grandfather’s map, ultimately ending with the lines, “I tremble to realize that I can no longer / remember my grandfather – I am merely a tourist.”

Separation and distance resonate in the intimate moments she conveys. Her poems often begin with the specific and concrete, quietly expanding into a deeper reflections on what those moments represent. In “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne”, she begins by describing congee (porridge) with, “Transfixed, I watch how the chef / shreds dried pork / into fine linear strips, drops / half-quarter slices of century egg / into a bowl of steamed rice.” The simple images soon turn into the speaker’s own relationship with the meal (“Today, I still have no idea / how to eat porridge with chopsticks”), and then into an imagined conversation with her father, in which he complains that both the taste and price of the food are nothing compared to “the rickshaw streets of his old Shanghai.” In this way, she goes beyond the initial preparation of congee to access memories and evoke longing.

Sze-Lorrain’s speaker is not afraid to share her vulnerability, expressing her fears and uncertainties with dark images and sharp, precise language. The poem “Moon” opens with symbolizes fear in my culture, / a dark force that hunts / until you cower.” These lines launch directly off the title of the poem, immediately plunging the reader into the piece. The poem “Invisible Eye” opens with “Fog / chalks the skeletons / of houses. I pry / open / doors of dusk.” The short lines propel the reader forward, paralleling the speaker’s hurried walk home while being followed.

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