This week on the blog, it’s our privilege to feature the work of writer, book artist, and designer Thad Higa. For the past few months, Higa has been working on a visual poem with our 2021 theme of “Asian American Futures” in mind. Inspired by Kenji C. Liu’s frankenpo form, his immersive piece probes the age-old microaggressive question “Where are you from?” and investigates issues of language and belonging by merging wordplay with typography and digital collage.
Below, we’ve asked Higa to introduce his project and the concept behind it. When you’re ready to explore the poem itself in full, head on after the jump.
The aesthetic was founded on frankenpo, a verb defined by poet Kenji C. Liu in his book Monsters I Have Been as: “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meaning often at odds with the original text.”
This is a digital broadside on identity ideation. It attempts to see words and concepts as identity-building materials that prop up binary, compartmentalized thinking. All variations of bodies and ways of being outside of this black/white vocabular are alien, invalid, dehumanized. “From the Mountain” wants to crack open English language and unveil the act of reading and judgement-making, to get at the root of seeing and knowing others and ourselves.
This morning, we’re sharing a new poem and reflection from Issue 2 contributor Rajiv Mohabir. As our nation enters the fourth week after the murder of George Floyd,Mohabir sings a prayer over his sister’s newborn child even as he wrestles with the ways in which legacies of colonial oppression have intersected with anti-Black racism in his family. “What new world will I help to create for my Saiya?” he writes. His words remind us that combating injustice is an urgent task that requires faith and sustained labor—and that we must not allow ourselves to weary as we continue the work of interrogating and uprooting systems of racial oppression within our nation, ourselves, and even, sometimes, our own cultures and families. Here is Mohabir—in his own words.
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We are watching Black people die disproportionately in the United States. COVID-19 threatening Black communities, the police hunting Black bodies. It’s time to become the ancestors who fought for Black liberation. My sister gave birth on February 20, 2020, to a Black child with eyes like moons. She gave birth to a Black child in the middle of a global pandemic. A moonrise in the middle of a global pandemic. What new world will I help to create for my Saiya? This poem came to me as a prayer while considering my extended family’s anti-Black racism in the United States, Canada, and England. Being Guyanese immigrants for their generation meant fleeing oppressive regimes, only to vilify Black bodies.
What does it mean to be in a precarious body, to be brown, and to ally with family and friends despite the define and rule lingering in our psyches, gifted to us by our colonial masters? What about how Hinduism is mobilized against Black communities in Guyanese and Caribbean practice? What about how Hinduism is the machine of savarna oppression; mobilized into anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit violence? What if I am queer and have ancestors with unknown and Dalit histories? These are some questions I have been grappling with for years.
I do know that queerness disrupts colonizing logics. I do know that somewhere in my ancestry were casteless people who fought for their rights and the rights of the people around them. This poem is a prayer to a casteless goddess of rage and vengeance that lives inside of us all. She is the Lord that is you and me. I summon her to summon courage to act against these calculated deaths engineered by the United States government.
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Daughter of the Sea, Child of Mountain
In mornings of thick gravity to see through tears and police teargas, against the government’s buffalo head impervious to man, make me queer and animal; place in my hands your lotus of creation, your trident of ruin, that I may gallop on tiger-back, teeth bared, loose haired, that I may trample under red foot, injustice— Hindus who raze Dalit and masjid; America that smashes Black bodies under knee. Here, I raise your sword; Goddess, I am your conch.
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Rajiv Mohabiris the author of The Cowherd’s Son (Tupelo Press 2017, winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize; Eric Hoffer Honorable Mention 2018) and The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books 2016, winner of the Four Way Books Intro to Poetry Prize, Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry in 2017), and translator of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (1916) (Kaya Press 2019), which received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant Award. His memoir won 2019 Reckless Books’ New Immigrant Writing Prize and is forthcoming 2021. Currently he is assistant professor of poetry in the MFA program at Emerson College and translations editor at Waxwing journal.
As an Asian American–focused publication, Lantern Review is committed to promoting diverse voices within the literary world. In solidarity with the Black community and in an effort to amplify Black voices in poetry, we’ll be sharing a different book by a Black poet in each of our blog posts this summer.
In honor of Pride Month, we’re sharing spoken word artist Arhm Choi Wild‘s poem “At What Cost,” an intimate exploration of the price of claiming queer identity in many Asian and Asian American communities, here on the blog. This powerful piece requires little explanation—but in keeping with our goal to be a space that seeks to highlight not just Asian American poetic production but also craft, process, and performance, we’ve also asked the poet to reflect upon about the writing of this poem and what it meant to her. Here is Wild—in her own words.
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I wrote this poem when I was living in Seoul in an attempt to relearn the language that I had lost for the sake of assimilating into my American privilege. I lived there for six months, a foreigner in my homeland, to gather any Korean that would allow me to talk freely with my mother. If I were more fluent in Korean, could she understand my queerness and therefore accept it? If I had the words to express how, despite her fears, I was loved by a chosen family, would she be able to open her heart? If I gained this depth, would that make up for the closet I had agreed to live in while living in Korea?
I started to wonder if the hyphen in my Asian-American identity meant that I was constantly working an equation: my homeland at the cost of my full self, physical affection at the cost of queerness. Though this poem doesn’t imagine the ideal world where we all are allowed to be ourselves without apology, I wanted to show how complicated the deals are that we broker in order to love not only the motherland but also the self that simultaneously belongs and remains a stranger. Pride is such an important month to celebrate because of these equations that often point to loss—and that we continue to strive to claim what is ours despite the potential of a closed door or a door that only allows part of us inside.
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Arhm Choi Wild
At What Cost
Gay people don’t exist in Seoul, South Korea
don’t get dragged behind cars or dream of lynching ropes don’t scream underneath burning houses or the fire hose don’t orgasm, don’t lose their teeth and then their dentures don’t forget their tampons, don’t make love in the bathtub and again on the floor because they have fallen in love twice that day, don’t run a finger over a cheek, wake up for a second to pull themselves closer, don’t pick up a hammer to bust in an idea, don’t dream, don’t fuck, don’t say I love you, don’t dream of fucking to say I love you, don’t skip brushing their teeth don’t try to stay friends with their exes, because in Korea gay people don’t exist.
But let me tell you what does. Let me tell you what has come from this homophobia turned homo-blind on these streets where glamorous ginkgo trees stand guard.
A group of boys moves off the sidewalk to give me space. Boy on left with his hand in back pocket of boy in the middle who reaches over to brush the hair out of other boy’s eyes, all three laughing, all free to show love in this homo-blind world.
I walk past the boys, duck into a food stall. It’s cold so I ask for the hot fish soup, look up from styrofoam cup to see a woman with her hand on the thigh of a friend, a finger going up to wipe off a cheek and kiss it all as part of the conversation easy like punctuation marks, regular like periods.
My family is no different. My aunt walks down the street holding my hand as cars rush by kicking up the dirty ginkgo leaves. Later that day, another relative talks to me with the help of her hand on my knee because I can’t speak deep in Korean.
They touch me with no idea of what a woman’s hands have meant to me, how the ways they curl around a coffee cup or flip through a book have turned me on. In my motherland, I don’t dare ask how to say “gay“ because I’m afraid the word doesn’t exist.
At what cost can men get the affection they need from other men? At what cost do I turn all past lovers into men, Sarah into Samuel, Megan into Mark? At what cost will I come out to my family and have them still see me?
It is for the cost of loving this country, of finally feeling like I fit in, like I have found the people to whom I belong.
Gay people don’t exist in Korea, and I am holding back a tongue that could break this mirage because seeing men not afraid to hold hands and fix each other’s ties is too beautiful— beautiful like a kiss in the naked soft of morning, beautiful like a mother welcoming her daughter home.
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Arhm Choi Wild is a Kundiman fellow from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She was a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize in 2019 and has been published in the anthology Daring to Repair by Wising Up Press and in the magazines Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Split this Rock, Foglifter, Two Hawks Quarterly, TRACK//FOUR, Peal, Otoliths, and Scholars & Rogues. She has worked as an educator in New York City for the last six years and has competed in poetry slams and performed across the country, including at Brave New Voices, the New York City Poetry Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, the Michigan Theater, and Asheville WordFest.