Friday Prompt: Working With Hybrid Language

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This month, in preparation for Issue 5: “The Hybridity Issue,” we’ve dedicated our Friday Prompts to exploring how collage, mixing and hybridization can be meaningful (and generative) practices for poets interested in exploring the narratives and critical concerns of the Asian American community..  Thus far, we’ve looked at hybrid form and mixed media; today we’ll be talking about hybridized language.

In contemporary poetry, quirky mixtures of the high and low, archaic and contemporary, and the scientific and colloquial are so common that we’re no longer surprised when a writer quotes a religious text–the Bible, for instance–and then, without skipping a beat, relays the one-liner they heard while waiting for an oil change.  This kind of modulation, frequently used for ironic or comedic effect, can also be deployed for more serious purposes–and, I suspect, is a mode we’ve come to embrace because miscegenated language reflects our cultural moment in a way that elegant, seamlessly constructed prose does not.  Just Google “best place to get tacos” or “Jeremy Lin is awesome” and see what comes up.

For many Asian American poets, however, linguistic hybridity is more than just an intellectual exercise.  Many of us are multilingual, or come from families whose histories are told in multiple tongues (two, at least, and sometimes more–I’m thinking here of Korean-Brazilian writer Larissa Min, who writes in the linguistic spaces between Portuguese, English and Korean).  And even if our tongues aren’t split by language, the idea of linguistic difference–our grandparents’ English versus our own, our professors’ English versus our aunties’–is important for more than theoretical reasons.  It’s freighted with cultural, and thus, emotional weight.  Our split tongues matter–even if, as is the case for me, a fourth-generation Japanese American, our “mother tongue” is little more than a myth, a conspicuous silence that, in its marked absence, tells us something about our history. Continue reading “Friday Prompt: Working With Hybrid Language”

Friday Prompt: Mixing Media, Mixing Sources

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Today’s prompt is more of a loose, outline sketch than a focused discussion. We’re still continuing our exploration of different modes of “hybridity,” but in thinking of examples of pieces that mix media and “collage” voices from outside sources together, I found that it was difficult to choose just one or two poems that felt truly representative. There is so much being done in terms of mixed media today, and so many, many different ways that people have found to do it.

Hence, the following list of resources loosely illustrates a few examples of the two particular modes of hybridity I’m focusing on today: 1) hybrid means of presenting poetry to the viewer (in which the artist employs media outside the realm of the traditional printed page, or combines two or more different media as the means by which to enact their finished piece), and 2) the use of multiple sources (texts, images, video clips, sounds, etc.) to create a hybrid, “collaged” effect (in which the artist may “borrow” text from multiple different sources and mix it with his/her own speaker’s voice).  In many cases, the examples I’ve listed do both.

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1. Monica Ong’s visual poem from LR issue 3,  “Corona Mestiza,” which overlays text upon the found images of a map and a brain scan in order to convey a family narrative of physical and geographical loss. (See Monica’s web site for more examples of her work, which often combines archival and original images with text, physical objects, sound, and reader/audience interaction).

2. Visual Poems by Gregory and Trisha Orr (from Rattle #29): the poet and his wife, a painter, collaborated on these pieces, combining text with color and visually-textured hand-lettering to form striking works of visual art. The rest of the issue is also full of interesting visual poems that can be used for inspiration.

3. Margaret Rhee’s “Materials” from LR Issue 4, which makes use of scrolling, vertical columns and strategic typography, and combines text and voices from multiple sources.

4. Charles Hobson’s beautifully composed and choreographed video accounting of the making of his artist’s book for Eavan Boland’s poem “Quarantine” (from Drunken Boat 15). The video is as much part of the mode of his art as the book and the borrowed text itself.  As with the Rattle issue mentioned above, the rest of the “Handmade/Homemade” folio that features Hobson’s film is worth exploring, too.  A tip for submitting to LR: if you are planning on sending in work that uses the full text of another person’s poem, please be sure to obtain their explicit permission before doing so (otherwise, we cannot publish your piece, even if it is accepted).

5. Mouseover translations on Action Yes: admittedly, this is more of a brilliant editorial intervention than anything else, but it so perfectly illustrates the possibilities for mixed media made available by the web that I couldn’t not include it. Here’s one great example: “from strips, attempts, games,” by Rémi Froger, translated by François Luong (mouse over the English to reveal the original French).

6. The work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, best known for her book Dictee, whose written and performed art sought to problematized the acts of speaking and writing in English (the loss of a heart language, the simultaneous stifling of a history by mainstream narratives) through explorations that made use of anatomical diagrams, archival photographs, poem-text (both self-generated and “borrowed” from sources like French dictation exercises), textiles, musical instruments, video footage, the performances of physical acts of creation and erasure, and more.  Extensive digital documentation of her work is no longer readily available online, but this New York Times tribute describes several of her important pieces quite well.

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Why mixed media? Why collage? Because the results of both can be absolutely startling. The dimensions of unfamiliarity and innovation that can emerge from the overlaying of the poem with non-print media, digital platforms, unique performative experiences, or text that comes from outside the characteristic syntax or lived experiences of the poet him or herself, can cause the reader to look again, to examine the text from a different perspective, and to encounter the poem in new and refreshingly counter intuitive ways.

Prompt: Create a poem or poetic work that presents itself to the reader through a mixture of two or more different types of media, and/or which collages together materials gathered from multiple different sources (texts, images, poems, sound clips, found objects, etc.).

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The submissions period for Issue 5, “The Hybridity Issue,” will close on July 15th. Has this prompt inspired you to experiment with mixed media poetics, or do you have other previously unpublished work that explores the concept of “hybridity”?  Click here to submit.

Friday Prompt: Hybrid Forms

LR Issue 5: "The Hybridity Issue" - Call for Submissions
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Now that the reading period for our first themed issue is open, we thought that our return to regular Friday Prompts would be a great opportunity to provide you with some  inspiration.  To that end, we’ll be setting aside this month’s prompts to illustrate just a few of the many approaches with which we believe the theme of “hybridity” could be interpreted.

This week, our focus is on form. Although there are many ways in which the formal structure of a poem could cause it to be classified as “hybrid,”  for today’s prompt, we’ve chosen to highlight two poems that make use of hybrid forms very differently: Kimiko Hahn’s villanelle “The Fever” (from The New Yorker), which mixes elements of free-verse with the constraints of a traditional formal structure, and Ching-In Chen’s poem “Fob” (from Tea Party), which blurs distinctions between “forms” from different genres by shaping itself around the structure and syntax of a dictionary definition.

In re-envisioning the villanelle, Hahn holds rhyme and meter loosely. Her use of slant rhymes (e.g. “color” / “fever”) and strategically varied refrains, and her light adherence to iambic meter allow her to engage the “rules” loosely enough that her language flits conversationally from line to line (clusters of Latinate words—themselves borrowed from the science section of the New York Times—as in, “damages the membrane of symbiotic algae,” help to make the stresses sufficiently “bumpy” so as to feel uncontrived), but she still holds onto enough of the form that as the poem rolls along, it stays—like a marble rattling through a chute—recognizably within the scaffold of a villanelle. The lyrical lilt that the form lends to the poem allows it to take on a twinge of ironic whimsy (given the gravitas of its overarching metaphor), while still retaining the appealingly confessional tone that is more frequently associated with free verse. As a result, the voice of the speaker comes across as sympathetically quirky, bemused, worldly—and we wholly buy the “leap” the poem takes when, by its end, we find that the speaker’s musings on coral reefs are merely a conceit by which to critique her own practices of self-ornamentation (“the ocean’s escalating fever” becomes “my ocean’s escalating fever”).

Ching-In Chen’s “Fob,” meanwhile, engages in a different kind of formal experimentation: it “borrows” the structure of a type of writing that falls entirely outside the genre of poetry. In appropriating the definition as a poetic form, Chen makes strategic use of the didactic—even alienating—editorial qualities that we associate with the dictionary’s language in order to frame and enact her ensuing critique of the relationship between structural and linguistic hegemonies.  Her “example sentences,” which extend the reader’s gaze beyond the bars of the “definition” text to offer startlingly intimate glimpses into an alternate, more evocatively “definitional” narrative, subvert the bland, instructional tone of the dictionary’s text, thus “fobbing” our expectations of the poem’s own conceit. Through her lyric interventions, Chen allows us to witnesses the complicity of teacher and dictionary—by their silence on the pejorative meaning of “fob”—in the racial bullying that the speaker experiences, and gives us access to her subsequent, delicious revenge, in which she tricks one of the bullies into thinking that, among other things, the Chinese word for “ugly” is actually the word for “pretty,” and that the term “ku-li” (coolie) is a flattering and desirable nickname.  In re-appropriating the dictionary’s syntactical patterns as a “form,” then, Chen successfully manages to turn the cultural and linguistic authority it represents against itself.

To read both poems in their entirety, click below:

“The Fever” by Kimiko Hahn
“Fob” by Ching-In Chen 

Prompt: write a poem that makes use of hybrid form, either by blending a traditional form with new and unusual elements from other verse traditions, or by appropriating the “formal” conventions of another style of writing or genre.

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The submissions period for Issue 5, “The Hybridity Issue,” will close on July 15th. Has this prompt inspired you to experiment with hybrid forms in your writing, or do you have previously unpublished work that explores the concept of “hybridity”?  Click here to submit.

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.

Curated Prompt: Rick Barot – “The Hermit Crab Poem”

Rick Barot

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 Rick Barot.

Once, I mentored a graduate student who had been obsessively reading the stories of survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings in World War II.  These stories were horrifying and moving by turns, and my student was consumed by them.  Because she was a poet, it was inevitable that her engagement with the stories would manifest itself in her work.  But here was the problem: she was a comfortably situated Caucasian woman who didn’t feel she had the right to write about this subject matter.  Even more complicated: she wanted to write poems directly in the voices of these survivors, making her use of the material doubly problematic.  Part of me, of course, wanted to advise the student to step away from the project, because it was simply too fraught with pitfalls that would make the project insurmountable at worst, and awful at the least.  But a larger part of me wanted to advise the student to move forward, which is what I did.

We artists get on a tightrope when we tackle subjects that are beyond the merely personal.  But far from ever trying to dissuade anyone from writing about these subjects, I urge them to head straight into those subjects.  The risks that come with any writing project are in fact the opportunities of that project: they are what make the project worth doing in the first place.  In poetry, there is no such thing as hands-off material.  A poem never fails because of its subject matter—it fails because the poet has inadequately given depth and shape to that subject matter.  Dramatic historical periods, natural disasters, grand personal wounds—writing about these subjects raises the stakes tremendously high when you have to write about them inventively, feelingly, thoughtfully.  You have to be ingenious to avoid failure—or, at the least, ingenuity will allow you to fail well.

Continue reading “Curated Prompt: Rick Barot – “The Hermit Crab Poem””

Curated Prompt: Luisa A. Igloria – “Poetry as Speculum”

Luisa A. Igloria
Luisa A. Igloria

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 Luisa A. Igloria.

Writing poetry is always a little archaeological—we dig and sift not only through our fund of experiences and memories, but also through a variety of textual fragments. As a writer in the diaspora, I am always reminded that the past, history, is a hallucinatory presence right here with us; that our life in the contemporary moment is marked by the displacements that time is eternally enacting.

In the news, we encounter stories about all sorts of anniversaries and commemorations: recently, so many articles on Bin Laden’s capture and killing last year; but also, I read the reminder that my high school friend and classmate, James Balao (whose 51st birthday was April 19), has been missing for nearly four years now since his political abduction by state forces on September 17, 2008. And then, I learn that a former student and friend, and one of my daughter’s grade school teachers who has made a life in Japan these last ten years, walked out of her home and marriage a month ago, with three very small children in tow—and has not been seen or heard of since. How is it possible? I am disturbed. I am disturbed by these unexplained rifts in time, by the unforgivable absences of explanations. And because facts alone, even when they are available, cannot assuage the terrible depths of these displacements, I turn to poetry for some kind of response, if not relief.

Because we are all involved in the drift of time, displacement is a function of contemporary experience—it is not something reserved only for us in the diaspora or for those of us who live with the legacies of colonization. History is a field at once very large and very intimate. But I like to think of the past as not completely done, of history’s archives as not static; we can enter the archive, we can reconstruct and re-imagine events, we can insert ourselves as figures or characters into its landscapes.

Continue reading “Curated Prompt: Luisa A. Igloria – “Poetry as Speculum””

Curated Prompt: Karen An-hwei Lee – “Wind”

Karen An-hwei Lee
Karen An-hwei Lee

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 Karen An-hwei Lee.

In Santa Ana, where I live, a curious wind rises only in autumn and winter. It is a hot, dry wind. Hair static. Restless dogs lie in the shade; quiet dogs are restless. In the “Los Angeles Notebook,” Joan Didion writes of the Santa Ana wind: “The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called ‘earthquake weather.'”

The wind is not named for any geographic origins here. Miles away, it starts with a downsweep of cool air that is slowly heated while crossing the high Mojave Desert into our valleys and coastal regions. Unsettling our routines, it sweeps across my city of gardeners and mission arches. Angelenos who spent their childhoods south of the Great Basin, who recall urban fires and great earthquakes, call it the “Santana.”

When the Santa Ana comes, the sun looms closer to the earth despite the winter solstice. Noon hangs, a sharp, angular hour, in the sky. Eucalyptuses toss dry leaves onto the asphalt, and no one sweeps them: no use. No one picks up broken pottery shards. Let the wind sweep everything clean, “for the wind blows wherever it pleases,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). After prayer, I close the shades, stay in the coolest room away from the lanai.

What is the tone of this wind?

I think of lines from “To the Tune of Wuling Spring” by the Song Dynasty woman poet Li Qingzhao. She was highly attuned to her surroundings, whether in days of plenty or of war and exile: “When flowers vanish / and wind ceases late in the day, / I am too tired to brush my hair.” Or these lines from her poem, “To the Tune of Sands of a Silk-Washing Stream”: “A far-off mountain range thins the falling dusk; / . . . as ineluctable pear blossoms, withering, wilt to fade.”

It is a desert wind, not a hurricane gale or a blizzard. As a girl, spending my childhood on an archipelago and two New England coasts, I experienced both of the latter. With the Santa Ana wind, tar paper tumbles in the road. I set out dishes to dry; a teaspoon of water vanishes. Night yields little relief as sea waves swell to the west. To the east, helicopters fly over spot fires in the hills and canyons where rough chaparral brush—yucca, black sage, manzanita—has weathered pre-blackened zones of controlled burning.

After moving to California, I learned two things.

With an earthquake, temblor-raised dust seeds the clouds, sending rain. After the Santa Ana calms, a fog always rolls in. I still do not know whether this is a sea fog or a land fog. On the coast, we have a phenomenon called a marine layer, so perhaps that is what this is. The temperature drops from the nineties to the seventies and even to the forties after sundown. I walk in the fog with my hair unbound and a fresh skirt, carrying mailed books in the welcome cool. Following a week of fire and smoke, I am grateful for the fog as a divine provision.

Prompt: Consider the rhythm of a wind you know well and write in this rhythm.

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she lives and teaches in southern California, where she is a novice harpist. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.

Curated Prompt: Jon Pineda – “Caesura”

Jon Pineda

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week’s installment was contributed by Jon Pineda.

Once, for training purposes at my job, I had to practice setting up an extension ladder mid-span, into that near empty space between telephone poles.  This space is usually connected by a cable lashed to a thin, metal strand.  At the top of the extension ladder are swiveled hooks for resting on the strand itself, so that there will at least be some resistance when it comes time to ascend the rungs, and then—once at the top, roughly twenty feet up—to attach the leather harness belt.  Then you simply lean back.  Ahead, there is nothing but the sky in front of you.

Though in that particular moment, suspended high above the ground, I was, of course, thinking about my physical safety, I couldn’t help thinking about other things as well.  That sky in front of me, for one.  It felt as though I could have fallen easily into that space.  Later, as I was working on a poem, I found myself thinking a lot about the caesura: the pause that usually occurs within a line of a poem.  I have always been interested in how this visual and aural delay aids in securing and distancing sections of imagery, so that the presence of a caesura is immediately felt by the absence it evokes.

Consider the first section from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Practice”:  “To weep unbidden, to wake / at night in order to weep, to wait / for the whisker on the face of the clock / to twitch again, moving / the dumb day forward— // is this merely practice?”  Voigt begins with a list of infinitives, each separated by a comma.  The reader is carried along by the undulant churning of each subsequent infinitive pushing into the next.  Then, the arrival of the dash halts the momentum just prior to the speaker’s question, “is this merely practice?”  The caesuras become a place that simultaneously allow the reader to rest within the pause and yet momentarily resist the unfolding tension of the poem.

I am grateful to Eileen Tabios for her contribution in resurrecting the work of the Filipino poet José Garcia Villa.  In The Anchored Angel, a book thoughtfully edited by Tabios, I first encountered Villa’s elaborate use of the comma, and I remember feeling confused and yet oddly at ease by this rush of punctuation.  In my mind, I kept hitting against the commas, until the words that preceded them became buffers for the next.  At that point, I settled into each word, pausing before and after:  “The, red-thighed, distancer, swift, saint, / Who, made, the, flower, principle, / The, sun, the, hermit’s, seizures, / And, all, the, saults, zigzags . . .” (from Villa’s poem “The Anchored Angel”).

In both examples I feel a presence at work.  Each point of pause tests the strength of the line.  It lets me, the reader, live in the suspension for just a little while longer.

Prompt: Write a poem that prominently features a caesura (or a number of caesuras).  Make the absence essential.

Jon Pineda is the author of the memoir Sleep in Me, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and a Library Journal “Best Books of 2010” selection.  His poetry collections include The Translator’s Diary, winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark, selected by Ralph Burns as winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and this summer, he will join the faculty for the Kundiman Asian American Poets Retreat held at Fordham University.  His poem “[we left the camera]” appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.

Curated Prompt: Eileen R. Tabios – “A Writing Prompt That Goes With the Flow . . .”

This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This Friday’s installment was contributed by Eileen R. Tabios.

My favorite writing prompt is based on Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day Feature. I once signed up to receive daily emails of their chosen “word-of-the-day” (you can also subscribe here). I used their daily word as a poem title. With that title—and subject or theme or however I responded to it—I’d then write a prose poem. As a secondary strategy to this prompt, I suggest writing a complete poem (or at least its first draft) in one sitting. Relatedly, I suggest the prose poem form, as I don’t wish the issue of line-breaks to interrupt the flow of the poem.

Trying not to interrupt the flow—and energy—of the poem is important, so feel free to add any strategies that would facilitate this. Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze, for example, has shared how he often doesn’t bother capitalizing “I” when writing his first drafts so as not to intrude on the flow of the poem (I don’t recall if he called it “flow” but that’s the net effect).(1)

I like several things about this prompt’s conceptual underpinnings. First, it helps to take you out of self-focus as the site for poetic inspiration. More poets need to realize their personal lives really aren’t that interesting to others (which is why, when I address biography and autobiography in several of my recent books, it’s not because I’m talking about myself, so much as because I’m disrupting conventional ways in which biography unfolds across genres—from the poem to the memoir to the third-party biography). Not that I’m dissing confessional or such types of poems; I’m suggesting this prompt as another way to generate poems where having a title or idea given to you necessarily forces you to address something that may or may not have been of personal concern. In this way, the prompt metaphorically writes the world into the poem rather than the poet writing something at the world.

Continue reading “Curated Prompt: Eileen R. Tabios – “A Writing Prompt That Goes With the Flow . . .””