Poetry We Admire: Asian and Pacific Voices in America
By Megan Kim
Recently, I set foot in a movie theater for the first time in three years (thanks to the encouragement of my MFA cohort). The lure: Everything Everywhere All at Once. I won’t even try to describe the film, other than it is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it made me laugh, flinch, cry, breathe. I will say that there is nothing like encountering a cinematic representation of the multiverse to make you think about every tiny decision you make at any given moment.
Just its title, however, does feel like an apt gesture toward the current state of affairs—or, so as to not generalize, at least to my own headspace. Even inside my little grad school bubble, I’ve been finding it difficult in the face of, well, everything, to do things like grade student assignments. Walk to the store for eggs. Sit down and finish a letter I started two months ago.
But something I have chosen and managed to execute this month is to spend time with Asian and Pacific American poetries. This is actually something I try to choose every month, and every month I find myself unlearning any ideas I might have held about what, exactly, it means to identify as or have other people identify you as an Asian or Pacific American writer.
Back when I was in high school, I remember encountering a New Yorker article on Ocean Vuong that compared reading his poetry to watching a fish move. It’s such a vivid, almost dizzying way to talk about writing. Slippery. Hard to pin down. I hope that the poems I’ve chosen to include here, out of so many poems I might have chosen, feel something like that. Not in the sense that they align with a prescribed sensibility, or resemble Vuong’s in any way. But rather that they reveal the endless movement and possibility within these voices and more importantly, that each poem leaves its own particular ripples, heading places we may not expect, both on the page and beyond.
Death is the same in both directions.
It wants to go somewhere. It wants to come back.
from "Everything Lies in All Directions"
by Hua Xi in New Republic
This poem by Hua Xi captivated me in part by the way it seems to hover outside of linear time, its speaker locating themself in a specific moment (“once, I…”) only on occasion, then fading in and out of the poem’s center. It is a dexterous poem, turning over and over on itself, and yet the element that struck me first is what feels to me like a stillness to its voice. I leave feeling in some way transformed, and quietly.
the one that’s always there when people talk about the war
the one that wants to disappear when people don’t talk about the war at all
the one that plugs itself into your lungs when you leave a country for good
from "Naming the Silences in the Mouth"
by Ina Cariño in Poetry Society of America
I have not stopped thinking about Cariño’s catalog of silences since I first read it. The poem paradoxically resists silence by giving each particular silence a description, a name. They range from tender to devastating, from comfortable to violent. One silence the speaker names is “the one you’ve gotten too used to,” and I feel like this is a silence that is overturned here, where we are asked to be acquainted with them particularly and slowly, line by line.
my girls and i talk about most things & yes
my girls and i don’t talk about some things
from "My Girls & I"
by Ananya Kanai Shah in The Offing
Yes, this happened, the speaker tells us again and again, insistent. Or no, this didn’t. This poem is a powerful deployment of parataxis, like an answer being revised or extended over and over. &, &, & generates a lack of hierarchy within the poem’s many pieces. Sometimes, the assertions are on behalf of the “we” and sometimes they are reserved for the “I.” I admire this poem for the way it generates such a nuanced tone while never straying from its simple formula.
I said it, “i forgive you” slipping
like a key beneath a door, where never was a house attached.
from "june 8, the smiley barista remembers my name"
by Wo Chan in Poetry
Wo Chan’s blooming sonnet is ripe with sensory wonders and opens up into something solid, something generous. It has the structural bones of a Petrarchan sonnet, broken into an octave and a sestet, but with the chatty directness of O’hara, or a friend you might sit across from in a cafe. This is a poem that has stayed with me since I first encountered it in Poetry, and I hope it will stay with you.