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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Weekly Prompt: Kenji’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Prompt Contest Winner!)

Congratulations to Kenji, the winner of our 2010 National Poetry Month Prompt Contest!

Here’s a slightly paraphrased version of his winning prompt.

Writes Kenji: “This one is not mine originally, but it’s one of the best ones I’ve ever tried. It comes by way of poet Suheir Hammad.”


Close your eyes and think about a time in your life that was extremely difficult.  Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible. Now, holding that moment of difficulty in your mind, search the scene and find one aspect of the situation or your environment that was beautiful. It could be environment and sensory – a sound, color, texture, lighting – or it could be an insight, perspective or emotion that existed at the same time as the difficulty.

Write about that beautiful aspect of this scene of difficulty for 15 minutes.

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We liked the creative possibilities of the paradoxical tension that this prompt asks the writer to explore: not beauty in spite of difficulty, nor a romanticized celebration of difficulty, but the strangeness by which a moment of difficulty can take on aspects of the beautiful.  Exploring this sort of tension in a poem may have the potential to open up an image or brief narrative moment to strange, surprising, and ever more complex associations.

Kenji will be receiving a signed copy of Monica Youn’s Ignatz.  Congratulations to him, and many thanks to all who participated!

Review: Monica Youn’s IGNATZ

Monica Youn's IGNATZ

Ignatz by Monica Youn | Four Way Books 2010 | $15.95

Monica Youn’s second book of poems, Ignatz (the prize for our 2010 National Poetry Month Prompt Contest), is based on Ignatz Mouse from George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat. I read the collection without prior knowledge of the comic strip, other then the basic synopsis that the cat loves the mouse, the mouse hates the cat, and the cat mistakes the mouse’s hate for love. Thus, the collection is presented as a series of unrequited love poems. The pieces often present an ambiguous and painful love, where the object of the love is never identified and never responds.

Youn’s language is lyrical and majestic, with images that evoke the highest ideals of love and quickly make the reader forget that the poems are rooted in comic strip characters. She does not hesitate to use romantic or archaic language, and  modern references such as Amtrak and CEO come as a surprise when they appear. In “I-40 Ignatz”, the speaker describes the interstate with tanker trucks, stoplights, gas stations, and yet still embeds them in loftier images such as, “A cop car drowses / in the scrub / cottonwoods. Utmost.” What stands out the most throughout the collection is her use of distinctive imagery.

Images of the landscape, the body, and the strange ways in which they intersect recur throughout the collection. In “Landscape with Ignatz”, Youn describes a canyon and the sky as bodies, and the place where the canyon and the sky touch as the meeting of two bodies. Each of the six lines is vivid and unusual, including the opening one: “The rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.”  Another piece, “Ignatz Oasis”, opens with: “When you have left me / the sky drains of color / like the skin / of a tightening fist.” These moments are not conventionally beautiful, but instead reflect the tension lying immediately under the surface.  The poems are like postcards, capturing simple messages across the changing landscape without revealing the depth of emotion behind them.

Youn demonstrates great versatility in her writing, playing with different styles and formats. Most of the poems are written in the first person, invoking or addressing an unknown “you” (ostensibly, the object of the unrequited love). The titles of the poems often reveal their intent; for example, the opening poem is entitled “Ignatz Invoked”. Other pieces include “Ignatz Aubade”, “Letter to Ignatz”, “A Theory of Ignatz”, and “Ignatz: Pop Quiz”. She also experiments with line arrangements, from prose poems to a collection of fifteens words presented in three columns of five words each (“Ignatz Incarcerated”).

In general, the speaker appears to present a certain sense of simultaneous self-awareness and obliviousness. The love expressed is nuanced and complex but with no sense of reciprocity. “Ersatz Ignatz” almost suggests the object of the affection becomes irrelevant to the performance of the affection itself. The poem ends with, “He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite / pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.”

The book is divided into four sections, each opening with a poem called, “Untitled (Krazy’s Song)” and ending with a poem called, “The Death of Ignatz”. These poems frame the sections, with each “Untitled (Krazy’s Song)” expressing a tangible but unattainable love and each “The Death of Ignatz” evoking a poignant sense of loss. The two modes provide a clear juxtaposition. The four poems entitled “Untitled (Krazy Song)” have an intentional saccharine quality while the four poems entitled “Death of Ignatz” are distilled precision, as the very last piece shows:

The architect leapt

from the bright
bell tower

and the sea
slunk back

to her cage

Throughout the collection, the pieces feel like they are building toward a greater realization that never arrives, reflecting the same sense of cyclicity and stagnation that is one of the central themes. Yet Youn manages to create a sense of complicity — the reader’s frustrations parallel that of the speaker — leading to a sense of pity for the speaker’s desperation. This sense of the dramatic, like the extreme caricatures portrayed in comic strips, heightens the carefully crafted sense of excess and futility that Youn presents in Ignatz.

Announcing Our 2010 National Poetry Month Prompt Contest

Special Prize: A Signed Copy of Monica Youn's IGNATZ.

National Poetry Month is coming up in April, and in order to mark it, the LR blog is going to be hosting our first ever Prompt Contest, made possible by the generous sponsorship of Four Way Books.  Do you think our Weekly Prompts could use some spicing up?  Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you’d like to share?  Here’s your chance to have your ideas featured in our weekly content, or even — if you turn out to be the one lucky person whose prompt we like best — to win a signed copy of Monica Youn’s new collection Ignatz!

Here’s how it will work:

1) Leave a comment on this post that includes the text of your prompt.  Entries must be posted by 11:59PM EST on Thursday, April 1st April 8th. Comments on this post will close after that time. Please leave some form of basic contact information in your comment (even if it’s just a link to the contact page on your web site), so that we can get in touch with you if you win.

2) During the first full week of April, we’ll be choosing the four prompts that we like best.  The winner and all three runners up will have their entries featured as Weekly Prompts on the LR Blog during the four Fridays from April 9th – 30th.  In addition, the winner will also receive a special prize that has been graciously offered  by Four Way Books: a signed copy of Monica Youn’s Ignatz. We will announce the runners up and winner week by week starting with the third runner-up and culminating with the winner, so keep on checking back in April to see if your entry has been featured.

3) A few ground rules: You may only enter once. Please submit only poetry prompts.  Keep all prompts appropriate: anything of a bigoted, demeaning, or nasty nature will not be considered; we’d also appreciate it if you could please try to keep your prompts somewhat PG in nature, as when choosing prompts we always try to look for flexible exercises which can be adapted for classroom use with either adults or kids.

That’s it!  Go forth and prompt-ify; we look forward to reading your entries!  And while you’re at it, please do check out Ignatz on Four Way’s site.  Many thanks to Editor Martha Rhodes, to Monica Youn, and to Four Way for their generosity.  Be on the lookout for our review of the collection next month.

On The Small Press and Asian American Poetry: A Focus on Four Way Books

Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List
Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Stephen H. Sohn
Stephen H. Sohn

In thinking about the so-called state of contemporary Asian American poetry, I am most struck by the issue of the proliferation of small presses that have remained afloat through print-on-demand publication policies and through the strategic limited print-run system.  American poets of Asian descent have certainly been a beneficiary of this shift as evidenced by hundreds of poetry books that have been published within the last decade.  In 2008 alone, there were approximately 20 books of poetry written by Asian Americans, the majority of which were published by independent and university presses.  Of course, on the academic end, the vast majority of Asian American cultural critiques, especially book-length studies, have focused on narrative forms, but the last five years has seen a concerted emergence in monographs devoted (in part) to Asian American poetry, including but not limited to Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (2006), Interventions into Modernist Cultures (2007) by Amie Elizabeth Parry, Race and the Avant-Garde by Timothy Yu (2008), and Apparations of of Asia by Josephine Nock-Hee Park (2008).  As a way to gesture toward and perhaps push more to consider the vast array of Asian American poetic offerings in light of this critical shift, I will be highlighting some relevant independent presses in some guest blog posts.  I have typically worked to include small press and university press offerings in my courses, having taught, for example, a range of works that include Sun Yun Shin’s Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press), Eric Gamalinda’s Amigo Warfare (WordTech Communications), Myung Mi Kim’s Commons (University of California Press), Timothy Liu’s For Dust Thou Art (Southern Illinois University Press).

In this post, though, I will briefly list and consider the poetry collections by American writers of Asian descent that have been put out by Four Way Books (New York City), headed by founding editor and director, Martha Rhodes—and will spend a little bit more time discussing Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).   Currently, Four Way Books’ list is comprised of:

Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004)

Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light (2005)

C. Dale Young’s Second Person: Poems (2007)

Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s Shadow Mountain (2008)

Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).

Were I to constellate the commonalities between these five collections, it would be clear that the editors at Four Way Books are very committed to the lyric approach to poetry, in which the connection between the “writer” and the lyric speaker seems more unified.  I have taught Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light in the past, specifically for my introduction to Asian American literature course.  What I find most productive about this collection is its very focused attention on “lyrical issues” of the mixed-race subject.  In The Price of Light, one necessarily observes how distance from an ethnic identity obscures any simple claim to authenticity and nativity.  In The Price of Light, a lyric speaker returns to one vexing question: what does it mean to be Thai?  To answer this question, the reader is led through a unique odyssey, where issues of poetic form, tourism, and travel all coalesce into a rich lyric tapestry.

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