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: Transportation

A bicyclist pauses at an intersection in New York City while a sea of yellow taxicabs moves around him.

I’ve always found that one of the occasions on which I am best able to write is when I’m traveling.  I don’t drive, and so whenever I need to go somewhere that is too far away to be reached by bike, I ride all sorts of buses, trains, planes, shuttles, trams, taxis, and other forms of mass transit in order to reach my destination.  There is something uniquely meditative about these trips: despite the fact that I am usually surrounded by—even crushed in against—other passengers, the motion and sound of the vehicle and the relative anonymity of being amidst a crowd of strangers provide me with excellent opportunities to listen, observe, and record.

In Oliver de la Paz’s poem “Aubade with a Thistle Bush Holding Six Songs,” the speaker engages with the sensory aspects of his experience on a train in order to contextualize a portrait of a fellow passenger:

A man told me that he had wasted his life. I did not know him.
We were on a train moving from one trespass to the next,
the fields in the windows shifting utterly into daybreak.

As the poem progresses, we find that the train itself and the experience of traveling on it have become the primary device by which this portrait is rendered:

The rails below us were making comparisons
as if they were saying look at the thorn tree gone wild,
look at the gravel kicked on the ties.

I wondered about the hollow of the guitar and of the voice of the man.
It’s always like this on trains‹the burn of your ear
when a stranger speaks over the sun cutting through windows.

The speaker, who knows nothing about this man besides what he has heard and seen of him within the context of the train ride, finds that the sound of the train and the slant of the light through its windows merge into his vision of this stranger, until, by the end of the poem, the man is absorbed into the greater network of train trips and other journeys that form the speaker’s experience: he is, the speaker states, just one of many strangers “who’s asked me for an ear.”  Like so many piece of luggage, some of those people’s stories have been remembered by the speaker, while others’ have been “left at the station.”  Most, we imagine, have suffered the latter fate.  But the speaker remembers this particular man’s story because of the way that his memory of it is mediated by his own experience of the train ride.  What he recalls most vividly is not the content of the story itself, but the scene outside the window of the train as it was being told: the three birds that “blur by,” and the way that their flight fixed this particular stranger into the speaker’s memory, as if sticking his name “to a thistle.”

Prompt: Write a poem that uses the sensory experience of riding a particular form of transportation as a device by which to relate the story of a journey or trip that you’ve taken.

Friends & Neighbors: Issue 1 of THE ASIAN AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW


It’s always exciting to receive a fat jiffy envelope with a book-like bulge in it when the mail comes. So when my copy of The Asian American Literary Review‘s inaugural issue arrived last month, I was especially ecstatic to rip into the envelope. Since the editors of AALR announced their presence online earlier this year, I had been eagerly anticipating their first issue.  Their pre-release publicity had advertised an impressive lineup of literary luminaries, and I must say that in every respect, the issue has managed to live up to the editors’ promises.

I’m going to focus on some of the poetry in the issue in a bit (since this is, after all, a poetry blog), but before I delve into that train of thought, I should note that I immensely enjoyed the prose in the issue, too.  I especially liked that the editors chose to began the issue with a “forum” (i.e. a series of position statements and replies) in which three Asian American writers (Alexander Chee, David Mura, Ru Freeman) responded to questions regarding the necessity and purpose of an Asian American literary magazine.  I enjoyed following the convergence and divergence of the participant’s different points of view, and in particular,  thought that their discussion about whether an Asian American writer must necessarily write ‘about’ his or her ethnicity brought up some very important questions, such as: do MFA programs disservice students of color by teaching them to write toward a “norm” set by mostly middle-class, white models?  Or, conversely, do they force students of color to conform their work to an particular “trope” or mode in which  “ethnic writing”  is expected to operate?  I also enjoyed the dialogue sparked by David Mura’s observations about the lack of longevity that has hitherto plagued many Asian American literary ventures.  Mura noted two problems that have contributed to this trend: 1) a lack of financial and administrative know-how, and 2) the divided nature of the Asian American community with regards to whether or not to claim a pan-Asian American identity.  I thought that Mura’s observations were spot-on. Young as LR is, my work on it thus far has already given me a taste of some of the challenges that he identifies.  I was especially struck by his point about lack of administrative manpower.  Administratively, LR is a two-woman operation and our solution thus far to keeping the administrative side of things manageable has been to keep the magazine relatively small.  But what of the future?  What will happen if LR expands beyond our administrative capacities?  Mura’s observations (and the ensuing responses by Chee and Freeman) touched on a very real concern for us, and served as a good reminder that in order to avoid burnout, we will need to be humble enough to seek out help when it’s necessary while remaining practical enough to stay grounded in whatever way we can.

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Review: Oliver de la Paz’s REQUIEM FOR THE ORCHARD


Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz | The University of Akron Press 2010 | $14.95

Oliver de la Paz’s third collection, Requiem for the Orchard, is a poignant reminder of both our inability to escape our pasts and our ability to re-write our histories through what we choose to remember. The pieces in this collection are interconnected by the speaker, a young man reflecting on his disenchanted youth. Part meditation on the ways our experiences inform who we are today, part meditation on the ways we cannot shed those experiences despite our efforts, the collection centers around the speaker’s youth spent in a small Oregonian town where he worked a summer job in the orchards.

De la Paz’s tone is often deceptively simple and conversational, as he considers the complex love-hate relationship of the speaker with his hometown as well as the realization that the hate of his youth has dissipated into fond memories. The first poem, “In Defense of Small Towns”, opens with, “When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there.” Later in the same poem he writes, “But I loved the place once.” As the collection progresses, the reader begins to get deeper glimpses into the process of self-discovery that accompanies the process of reminiscing. In “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon” he writes: “A blacked-out soda can. Maybe a plastic lid fused to stone. A refusal / to forget childhood’s scald. But also a kind of forgiveness.” As the speaker remembers his childhood, even as he previously resented or denied it, he finds some forgiveness for himself. By the last poem, “Self-Portrait with What Remains”, the speaker reflects on what has stayed with him:

And this? This is what’s left—my night coughs. Slips of news


clippings from the old town sent in the mail. The know-how

of tractor management. Now, where once resided


acrimony for youth’s black seed—nothing except a single wing

opening and closing and opening again to catch the wind.

De la Paz shows that what lasts through time may not be what we expect, but may instead be the mundane or everyday, and that the speaker’s bitterness has disappeared as he reaches peace with his past. His descriptions of his youth are factual and concrete; the absence that now replaces his anger is beautifully captured in the image of the flapping wing. But to reach this acceptance the speaker must also mourn what is gone. Throughout the collection are a number of poems entitled “Requiem” that truly sing of loss. Although they are ostensibly about the loss of the orchards, they powerfully capture the loss of youth itself. One of these opens with a series of questions that succinctly show the way the loss of the orchards is intertwined with the loss of youth, how the memories for one are tied with memories of the other: “Where lie the open acre and all limns? Where the shade / and what edges? What serrated blades and what cuts? / Where are we, leather-skinned, a spindle of nerves / and frayed edges? What spare parts are we now / who have gone to the orchard and outlasted / the sun and the good boots?” (page 71).

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Event Coverage: Reflections on AWP 2010, Part 1

Morning in Denver from our hotel window

Waking up to bright sun and brisk, springy weather every morning was just one of the many small points of brilliance that characterized AWP for Mia and me this year.  Having just come off winter (we both live in places that are not known for their sunshine during the first few months of the year), it was a treat to look outside our hotel room in the morning and see sun, blue skies, and mountains in the distance.  Denver was beautiful.  Even the snow that had been forecast for Wednesday held off for us.  But not even the gorgeous weather or the lure of spring fever proved powerful enough to distract us from the activity going on inside the harshly-lit interior of the Convention Center this weekend.  When I say that it was a wonderful AWP, I really mean it.  After last year’s conference in Chicago (I met Nick Flynn!  I heard Sun Yung Shin read! Lan Samantha Chang complimented my sweater! Poetry played in the elevators all day!) I was prepared for this year to be pretty darn awesome.  But my experience this year totally blew me away.  Part of it was the fantastic panels and readings that I attended.  Part of it was the excitement of walking around the bookfair and getting to talk about LR and hand out our bookmarks and mini-books. Part of it was the great hotel, great food, and Mia’s great company (I’ll admit that we took at least one night off towards the end of the conference just to spend some catching up and discussing each other’s poems over styrofoam cups of Ramen).  But a large part of what made the experience so great was the amazing generosity of the people that we met there, and the passion with which we heard them speak of their work and their involvement with communities of other writers.

Over the course of the four days, Mia and I went to panels and readings galore and spent lots of time in the bookfair.  In this two-part series, we’ll be reflecting on just a few of our favorite events.  For my post, I’ll be focusing on one off-site reading and three panels/readings that I particularly enjoyed.  For more about our experience, look through our Flickr gallery of photos from the weekend, and check back here at the blog for Mia’s followup later this week.

Follow the jump below to read my reflections on the Kundiman/Cave Canem Joint Reading on Wednesday, Thursday’s Kundiman Panel, Friday’s From the Fishouse reading, and Saturday’s Split This Rock’s panel.

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Weekly Prompt: “We Mustn’t ____ Anymore”

First things first: a shout out to Oliver de la Paz, who unwittingly provided the impetus for this week’s prompt.  Mr. de la Paz, we love what you write!

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter recently in order to keep up with the LR community and last week, I happened to read one of Mr. de la Paz’s Tweets that said:

Oliver_delaPaz mustn’t put two spaces after periods anymore. Oops. Old habits die hard.
11:37 PM Nov 13th from web

The content of the Tweet registered briefly with me (I spent a lot of time this summer having to retrain myself to use one space after periods because my job involved cover copy work), but as the week wore on, I found that the rhythm of that first sentence had, in a strange way, worked itself into my head.  “We mustn’t ____ anymore,” I thought as I washed the dinner dishes.  “We mustn’t_____anymore,” chugged the buses rolling past my apartment on their morning routes.  “We mustn’t ______anymore,” wheezed the teakettle as I brewed my afternoon cup. 

Being haunted by a Tweet (okay, a variation on a phrase from a Tweet) is no easy thing.  It twists itself into your every thought and action, pokes at you until your very footsteps are beating out “We mustn’t_____anymore,” and you feel you must do something with it.  Hence, this week’s prompt.  To Mr. de la Paz: apologies for hijacking your internet musings.  No irreverence was intended. Twitter made me do it!

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This exercise takes its form from both the phrase “We mustn’t ______ anymore” and from Kenneth Koch’s classic poetry exercise for children, in which every line begins with the words “I Wish.”

Write a list poem composed of sentences that begin with “We mustn’t . . . ” and that end with ” . . . anymore.”

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Editors’ Picks: Open Books – A Poem Emporium

A poet’s utopia, Open Books: A Poem Emporium, is a poetry-only bookstore located in Wallingford, Seattle.  Owned and run by husband and wife duo John Marshall and Christine Deavel, Open Books is the only bookstore of its kind on the West Coast (the other is in Cambridge, MA).  The store’s collection caters to a wide range of poetic sensibilities and carries not only recently published works, but a variety of rare and first editions as well.

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