Poetry in History: The Angel Island Poems

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts.  For each post in the series, we’ll highlight poetry written during and/or about an important period in Asian American history and will conclude with some ideas that we hope will provoke you to responding to these poems in your own work.  Today’s post centers around the wall poems written by Chinese immigrants who were detained in the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Angel Island Wall Carvings

This Saturday (May 8th) marks the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station.  Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940.  During the era of Chinese Exclusion, immigration interviews were more like interrogations.  American officials often asked impossibly detailed questions that were supposedly designed to root out anyone who was attempting to enter the country illegally, but in reality, the questions served mainly to intimidate immigrants and pit family members’ accounts against one another.  Conditions in the barracks were very much like prison, too.  Detainees were separated by gender and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time.

To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls.  Discovered in 1970 by a park ranger, 135 poems from the men’s barracks survive and have been preserved (the women’s barracks, unfortunately, were destroyed in a fire long before the 70’s).  The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure.  In 1999, Genny Lim, Him Mark Lai, and Judy Yang compiled and translated a selection of the poems and included them in their book Island, which juxtaposes the poems with historical accounts and documents that tell the immigration station’s story.

Here are a two examples of the translated wall poems (courtesy the Ancestors of the Americas’ online excerpt of Island):

The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to
live in a wooden building?

* * *

Because my house had bare walls, I began
rushing all about.
The waves are happy, laughing “Ha-ha!”
When I arrived on Island, I heard I was
forbidden to land.
I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.

These poems are powerful to me because of the way that one sees violent tension struggling to the surface beneath the almost lyrical quality of the poets’ surroundings.  In a way, they encapsulate the experience of being trapped into a cell in the middle of an island so lush that it’s now a designated a nature preserve.  The beauty of the world available outside the window belies, even betrays, the ugliness of the speakers’ experiences inside the detention center.  They are cut off, denied passage, hemmed in by human constructions (both physical and psychological). That the poems are also so different in tone also indicates the complex diversity of attitudes amongst the detainees: while the speaker of the first poem causes us to reenact the shock of his experience by dropping us smack into the cell after describing the “gentle breeze” of his hopes upon arrival, the speaker of the second poem draws us into a world in which everything — even the waves — are in collusion with the authorities.  The tone of the second poem explodes with angry energy, while the first is ironic and almost dryly detached at its end.

There are a number of directions that Asian American writers have taken in the past while trying to engage the topic of Angel Island.  Some adopt personas, playing on the ambiguity of personal identity inherent to the Paper Son system and American prejudice as they bring to life characters who may or may not have passed through the detention center.  Others, like Russell Leong, remain in the present but work historical modes in and out of their poems.

If you’d like to try writing about Angel Island or the wall poems, here are some ideas about possible points of access:

1. Write a poem whose form patterns itself on the rhythms of one of the translated wall poems.

2. Write a poem that engages with the textural aspects of the Angel Island site from a contemporary perspective.  How might the physical properties of walls and floors evoke imaginative speculation about the tactile aspects of historical experience?  For example, how might the splintery grooves of a wall carving give birth to the image of the action of carving, itself?

3. Write a piece that incorporates found text from the wall poems and/or from oral histories, imagining them as separate speakers in conversation with one another or with your own lyrical interventions.

4. In the spirit of the two wall poems posted above, write a poem that plays with the question of physical space.  Think about interiority vs. exteriority, the permeability or solidness of the barriers that separate the two — how might the contrast between the interior and exterior worlds created by the walls of a building reflect or belie the relationship between a speaker’s interior and exterior selves?

If you’d like to read more about Angel Island and Chinese immigration, here are some resources that we recommend:

Historical Print Resources

Lai, Him Mark, et. al. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: U of Washington Press, 1999.

Web Sites / Web Projects

Angel Island Association

Angel Island: Immigrant Journeys of Chinese Americans [Oral histories compiled by Lydia Yee]

Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

“Angel Island Poetry” at Modern American Poetry [a project of the English Dept. and U Illinois Urbana-Champaign]

“paper son” [A one-man show by comedian Byron Yee]

Chinese American Literature that Engages With Angel Island

Kingston, Maxine Hong.  China Men. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Leong, Russell.  The Country of Dreams and Dust. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1993. [Read Barbara Jane Reyes’s review of Leong’s collection at the Poetry Foundation blog, here].

Lim, Genny.  Paper Angels and Bitter Cane: Two Plays. Honolulu : Kalamaku Press, 1991

* * *

If you end up writing about Angel Island this week, we’d love to see any excerpts of your attempts in the comments.  Also, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we encourage you to visit the station itself; especially worth thinking about is the Poetry in Motion celebration being held at the Station tomorrow in commemoration of the site’s 100th anniversary.

3 thoughts on “Poetry in History: The Angel Island Poems

  1. I visited this place, last year, and have a slide show, which I could share, if you would like this. It may help others as they consider how to write responses to the poems and place of Angel Island (asian american alumni of yale association, aaaya event).

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