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.
Happy National Poetry Month! For our April roundup, we’ve selected three recent APA poetry collections that reflect upon the labor of vulnerability. These ambitious projects employ footnotes, coding syntax, Google Translate, and elegaic and pastoral forms to mine tenderness from the desert, tracing how tendrils may grow where no sun has touched, how hybrid bodies might emerge from our ruins. If you’re aching for sustenance in the midst of a barren season this month, we hope you’ll consider checking out one or more of these gutsy titles.
Monsters I Have Been, Kenji C. Liu’s second collection, meditates on the wreckage left by histories of violence and domination. Fittingly, Liu deploys an original form in this book that he has dubbed “frankenpo”: juxtapositions of footnotes, musical scores, and lines in translation that can divine “new meanings often at odds with the original texts” (1). As Liu writes in “The Monstrosity: Notes Towards a Frankenpo,” the collection’s concluding essay, the frankenpo responds to the idea that “A monstrous presence is needed to respond to monstrous times” (82).
The resulting poems are both playful and rife with pain as they dismantle the bloody logic of imperialism and take apart the brutal performance of heteropatriarchal masculinity. Take “Footnotes to a Murder in the Third Degree,” a poem for Michael Chun Hsien Deng, who was beaten to death in 2015 while being hazed by brothers from his Asian American fraternity. Masculine identity defined by violence leaves the body of the poem, the mourned boy, absent. What remains are numbered fragments—”We broken brothers, tackling each other with belonging,” reads one footnote (22)—that gesture at the legacies of racism and cultural alienation that motivate cruelty as a mode of kinship. Monsters I Have Been calls for ownership, rather than abandonment, of history’s “indefensible monstrosities” as close as our blood relations: “What new bodies do we need in order to survive and live?” (90). Liu sows lines for new manifestos, for future modes of kaleidoscopic, intimate becoming; his monsters are “Not an attempt to create a new kind of man, but to grow a monster of compassion and ferocity” (88).
Fears of AI domination revolve around the questions: Can machines think? Can robots become sentient? With glittering poetics, Franny Choi reminds us these are trick questions—the histories of machines and cyborgs have always been inseparable from histories of sentience. In her new collection Soft Science, Choi lends radical softness to ash, coral, cyborg, imaginary girl alike. All are just as vulnerable as we are to the specter of another animal’s rise, an animal that points to us and names us “animal / alien / bitch / stone” (15). Language, then, becomes the double-edged sword that Choi uses to probe moments of violence. In “Jaebal,” for instance, language manipulates and assaults; its failures give way to necessary quiet, a precious harbor and a parallel universe where the speaker is “hardening and bright and filling / my own room” (31), where language can be rediscovered as a tool for making sense and healing. In “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Hears You Right,” Twitter harassment Choi received is run several times through Google Translate, resulting in lines like “flat face fetus,” “uppity, filthy immigrant girl,” and “I go back to my mudhole” (26)—so that the imperfections of layered automatic translation render hate speech as nothing more than a performance of power that falls flat. Just as language can inflict pain, Choi’s poems assert language’s ability to strengthen, to protect, to play.
It is fitting that the cover of Soft Science is a reprint of James Jean’s “Parasola,” a fantastical homage to photographer Ren Hang. When Ren took his life in 2017, he left behind his haunting photographs—of his friends’ nude bodies entwined with birds, pressed up against leaves—that articulated the messy, mutating, and mutilating world of embodied desire in a suppressive society. If Jean’s homage extends Ren’s world to create refuge in a pastel dimension, then Soft Science, too, enacts a process of returning from shelter to scenes of violence, reacquainting world with cyborg self—only this time, with a kinder yet more ferocious touch.
Arabilis by Leah Silvieus, (Sundress Publications, 2019)
In her first full-length collection, Arabilis, Leah Silvieus guides us through life and last breaths, allowing cycles of absence and abundance to unfold in lush lines. In “Field Dressing,” a father shoots a doe; his daughter holds its gutted heart “until it cool[s], then cast[s] it to the dogs.” In “Maryland Route 210 Elegy, Dusk,” the speaker reflects on animals struck by car, bodies curled “as if just borne / into the world” (34). And in an early poem, “So Blonde,” the speaker, a transracial adoptee, fails to will her hair into gold—and out of that failure, finds instead that her hair comes alive, “my horde of snarled darlings, so dark, so generous” (13).
Arabilis, sectioned by the turn of each season, is—as it must be—an exceptionally patient collection, one that observes how “abandoned long enough . . . a place becomes an elsewhere,” as Silvieus writes in “Parousia” (43). Through close observations of street debris, of wasp nests, of the strangling roots of a white swamp oak, Silvieus allows connective tissue to form between the reader and an always brutal, yet always tender, poetic world.
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What recent poetry collections have created new spaces for vulnerability in your emotional life? Share them with us in the comments or let us know onTwitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
This month, our Summer Reads include Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut(Four Way Books, 2016) and Kenji C. Liu’s Map of an Onion (Inlandia Books, 2016), two remarkable debut collections that feel so fully conceived, so urgently and articulately expressed, that one hesitates to call them “debuts,” as these are clearly two poets who have been at this for longer than the term “first book” implies. Deeply theorized, expertly crafted, and placed squarely in conversation with the poets’ respective family histories, cultures, and discourses of science and post-colonialism, these works draw the reader into a thoroughgoing investigation of what it means to be human, delivered into a specific time, body, and cultural milieu. These poems are the maps they have fashioned for themselves, forging a poetics of reckoning in pursuit of generational and lived truth.
In The Taxidermist’s Cut, Rajiv Mohabir’s lines, both sinister and lovely, function as cuts that reveal and divide, shimmering with the erotics of violence. Transfixed, one finds oneself unable to look away, arrested by the elegance of the language and the way, when held to the skin, it causes the body to shiver with pleasure. The line, the body, the text, the means by which bodies make and destroy themselves; “Pick up the razor. // It sounds like erasure.” Formally, the couplet features prominently throughout, raising the question of what’s joined, what’s split, what adheres together and what pulls apart. Stitched through with found text from Practical Taxidermy, The Complete Tracker, and other taxidermy-related manuals, the poems confront the body with a mixture of scientific detachment and intimacy, as the life of the body—its homoerotic desire, its violation—is rendered in acute detail. Members of Mohabir’s family, past and present, drift in and out of The Taxidermist’s Cut, as, marked by a pilgrim poetics of wandering, the book moves through the West Indies, the South, boroughs of New York City, reckoning with memory, desire, and histories of conquest and slavery. These poems are breath caught from the throat, blood cut from a wound—the cry that follows, in pleasure, in pain, indistinguishable from song.
Kenji C. Liu’s Map of an Onion, a work deeply textured by memory and place, maps its own set of explorations beyond and within cartographies of language, national borders, and the body. Like Mohabir’s, Liu’s subjectivity is shaped by multiple histories and homelands, all impressed upon a poet who writes with deep sensitivity to the pre-colonial realities of place, drawing us into greater awareness of what it means to be American, immigrants, humans. “Ghost maps are hungry maps,” he writes, tracing lineages and interlocking histories through time. It’s a mapmaking of the self, a “search translated between my family’s four languages.” Marked in places by profound longing (“Home is on no map, and explorers / will never find it. That time has passed”) the poems, in their searching, take us from Mars to Moscow, suburban New Jersey to the World War II Philippine jungle. The book itself, neatly sized and beautifully produced, fits compactly in the reader’s hand and brings to the body an awareness of itself as a artifact translated across cultures, yet possessing a language all its own. Map of an Onion, too, concerns itself with the act of incision, especially of paper, “the surgery of documents” cutting ruthlessly across land, sea, and families. What binds and what breaks—folded, torn. “Taste your own / luscious // fissures,” the poet says, the places where selves meet; the sinew, cartilage, and tendon of bodies that are bound and, simultaneously, transcendent.
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What books are on your summer reading list? We’d love to hear about them! Leave us a comment below or share your best recommendations with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
Good morning, and Happy New Year! We’re back from our holiday hiatus!
We thought we’d start off 2013 with a quick editorial roundup of a few exciting news items that have been on our radar as of late, but which we didn’t have an opportunity to bring to your attention over the break:
Kundiman Poetry Retreat Applications Open
New fellow applications for the 2013 Kundiman retreat are now open, until February 1st. This year’s retreat will take place from June 19–23 at Fordham University, and its star-studded faculty lineup will feature Li-Young Lee, Srikanth Reddy, and Lee Ann Roripaugh. Why should you apply? Well, because the retreat is an experience like no other for anyone who considers themselves an Asian American poet. (And who wouldn’t want to chance to work with Li-Young Lee or Srikanth Reddy?) To learn more about the application process, visit the Kundiman web site. (And if you’d like to read some firsthand accounts of what the retreat’s like, you can read about Henry’s and my first experiences there in this 2011 post).
Contributor Eugenia Leigh to helm poetry section of Kartika Review
We recently learned that Issue 3 contributor (and guest reviewer) Eugenia Leigh will succeed Issue 2 contributor Kenji C. Liu as poetry editor of Kartika Review after the latter’s having stepped down from the position late last fall. To Eugenia: our congratulations on the new position—we are excited to see where you will be taking KR next; and to Kenji: cheers on a job well done, and best of luck with all of your future endeavors.
Madding Mission Journals and ECRITUREartefacts by Desmond Kon
Issue 1 contributor Desmond Kon recently launched two lines of literary art “objects”: Madding Mission Journals and ECRITUREartefacts. I’ve long been a fan of Desmond’s hand-lettered art as well as of his poetry, and both of these collections of goods, which feature stylish typography, quirky poem-snippets, and the occasional cheeky illustration (like a mug featuring a bar of soap, a lemon, and a high-heeled shoe), feature both of his talents to full effect. Congrats to Desmond on this new and exciting venture. Check out his line of blank journals here, and his shop of other literary goods here.
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That’s all the news we have for you this morning. Regular content on the blog will resume later this week; check back on Wednesday for our first contributor post of the New Year, in which Wendy Chin-Tanner interviews Lao American poet (and Issue 4 contributor) Bryan Thao Worra.
This week’s digital broadside download is actually two designs in one. Designer Kenji C. Liu has created two separate visions for Kimberly Alidio’s poem “translation” (from LR issue 2): not only has he designed a beautiful desktop wallpaper, featuring an image of a boat, but he’s also conceived of the printable version in such a way that it can be cut and folded into a miniature chapbook. Kenji (who’s a poet and past LR contributor himself, in addition to being a crackerjack graphic designer) had this to say about his decision to create a printable that requires an element of DIY:
The reason I decided to make an “interactive” broadside is I’m interested in making bookmaking as accessible as possible. The broadside is a great tradition that makes writing easier to distribute. I just wanted to take it one step further and demystify the book. This mini-chapbook is more in the DIY “zine” tradition but is also inspired by pocket poetry and “poems for all“. It is extremely easy to make, reproduce, and distribute. I hope others will use this format for their own poems, and leave them everywhere.
In the spirit of making it even easier to spread the poetry love, we’ve created a video tutorial demonstrating how to turn it into a book:
Both of Kenji’s beautiful designs can be downloaded at our “Digital Broadsides” page. Where will you leave a copy of your “translation” mini-chapbook? As always, we would love to see a photo or hear a story. Tag us on Facebook or on Twitter, leave a video response on YouTube, or send us an email at editors [at] lanternreview (dot) com.
Here are a few exciting tidbits of news from the LR community to round out our last day of posts before hiatus (which takes effect tonight, along with the submissions deadline for Issue 4! Don’t forget to send your work in—the system will be open until 11:59 pm EST).
Videopoem for Kenji C. Liu’s “A Son Writes Back”
LR contributor Kenji C. Liu sent us a link to this awesome video he created for his poem “A Son Writes Back” (the most recent version of which appeared in Issue 2). The video combines an audio performance of Kenji’s poem with musical accompaniment by Jason Jong. According to its caption on Vimeo, the visuals in the piece are footage from “a US Air Force propaganda film portraying aerial attacks on Imperial Japan during World War II.” Watch the embedded version below, or follow the links beneath it to watch on Vimeo.
Not only does Issue 3 contributor W. Todd Kaneko’s work appear in the 10th issue of the Los Angeles Review, but the magazine recently featured his poem “Remembering Minidoka” online as one of the issue’s “highlights”! To read the piece, click here. Many congrats to Todd on this honor.
Bao Phi’s Sông I Sing Reviewed in the New York Times
Issue 3 contributor Melissa R. Sipin was inspired enough by Wendy’s interview with Kimiko Hahn (and by the APR interview that Wendy references) that she wrote a poem in response! She’s shared it on her blog. Thanks, Melissa, for your thoughtful engagement with Kimiko’s words!
When the AAWW announced the winners of its 2011 Asian American Literary Awards last month, we were thrilled to hear that Issue 3 contributor Oliver de la Paz’s Requiem for the Orchard had been named 1st finalist in the poetry category (after Kimiko Hahn, who won for Toxic Flora, and before Molly Gaudry, who was named 2nd finalist for We Take Me Apart). But Oliver is not the only one of our friends and contributors who has had exciting news this season. Here some recent publications and releases that have shown up on our radar these past few months:
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Marc Vincenz’s The Propaganda Factory (Argotist EBooks 2011)
Contributor Marc Vincenz’s new e-book The Propaganda Factorywas released by Argotist EBooks this past August. In this short collection (which includes “Taishan Mountain,” a poem that first appeared in LR issue 2), Marc weaves together layers of history and geography through an ever-shifting range of lenses that take us from the level of the microscopic to the realm of the galactic at a moment’s notice. It is available for download here.
Kim Koga’s ligature strain (TinFish Press 2011)
Issue 3 contributor Kim Koga now has a chapbook (ligature strain) out with TinFish. In this linked sequence, which was published as #6 in TinFish’s current retro chap series, Kim floods the page and the mind’s eye with feverish, liquidly intense imagery that involves birth, echolocation, pink and white flesh, and lots of fetal beavers (yes, the actual animal). Be on the lookout for more about ligature strain later this month.
Welcome to our Summer Reads 2011 blog series! Throughout the months of July and August, we will be featuring recommended reading lists submitted by Lantern Review contributors who want to share books they plan to read this summer and titles they want to suggest to the wider LR community. This post is a triple feature and includes reads from Issue 2 contributors Michelle Peñaloza, Kenji C. Liu and Gowri Koneswaran.
Here’s what I’m hoping to get to this summer:
Atlantis by Mark Doty The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata Natural History: A Selection by Pliny the Elder Just Kids by Patti Smith Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss pieces of theirs that we have published. In this installment, Kenji C. Liu discusses his poem “A Son Writes Back,” which appeared in Lantern Review Issue 2.
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Somebody’s calligraphy hung on the wall in the house I grew up in. I saw it every day. In my late twenties, on a visit back home, I asked my father about it. It was a poem written by my ancestor Guang-Chuon Gong almost eight centuries ago—advice to the Liu family.
The qilu is a classic Chinese form consisting of eight lines of seven characters each. I took my father’s translation and adjusted it to eight lines of seven syllables each. My responses to Gong follow this adjusted form.
“A Son Writes Back” is one of several poems that has developed out of a challenge I put to myself years ago—to write about gender, specifically male privilege and patriarchy. This grew out of my community activism and graduate studies.
In this poem I am attempting to dig into some of what I have learned and internalized about gender. The original qilu speaks to, among other things, the importance of filial piety, and encourages the males in our family to prosper together. (I also find it fascinating that the original qilu implicitly acknowledges that our family would make foreign lands home.) In my responses, I am attempting to juxtapose eight hundred years of differences in perspective about gender roles.
For example, Gong tells us “foreign lands will become home”, and later, “young men, prosper together.” In my response, I bring up the story of our family’s migration from China to Taiwan, engraved in stone at our ancestor temple. It reveals who is apparently important in this crossing. The generational count on the altar starts with the sons, not the mother who carried them over. This is why I use the pinyin for both mother and horse.
As an Asian American man, I can not assume that Confucian patriarchy is something left behind in Asia, because I see it at work in my own family and communities. I wonder how it influences my life, and so I write.
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Excerpt from “A Son Writes Back”
Stay on course crossing borders. Uphold ethics where you dwell; foreign lands will become home. Recall your parents’ teachings; every day burn fragrance to venerate your ancestors. Heaven bless the Liu household. Young men, prosper together.
After you, we crossed many
borders. Eight hundred sun turns.
At one point, a pegasus
landed two boys in Taiwan.
Mā/mǎ carried babies but
boys carried our name, the first
compass. This bypass is our
family, is our paddle.
Thank you so much once again to Kenji for this opportunity. Please continue to check back at The Best American Poetry Blog throughout the week for more posts by Gerald Maa, Barbara Jane Reyes, and by Kenji himself. We also highly recommend Patricia Ikeda’s installment in the series, which went live yesterday.