Poetry We Admire: AAPI Poets
Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance. / After such a revelation, the poem is about race, the story is about the gun, the dance is about the body of the dancer — it is no longer considered a dance at all and is subject to regulation.”
—Monica Youn, From From
“I want to put that dancer back
into the privacy of history. But he’s got his own future.
He’s out there now, working on the railroad.”
—Paisley Rekdal, West: A Translation
“In the researching of [The West Coast’s] history, it was clear that at least the American pioneer part of it was a history of violence towards Chinese. In Chinoiserie, I gave the example of an English phrase book for Chinese people; this phrase book was eighty percent about violence perpetuated against them. Not: ‘where can I get a cup of coffee?’ You know: ‘I was robbed of my money.’ Things like that.”
—Ping Chong, The East/West Quartet
“Honey, understand, it’s me against the crowds.”
—Baek Hwong (NoSo), Stay Proud of Me
“In the early nineties, some of the most prestigious poetry journals in the country began publishing the work of an only recently discovered Japanese poet, a man who had survived the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima. His name was Araki Yasusada. Born in 1907, influenced by Roland Barthes and Jack Spicer, Yasusada fused Japanese and American avant-garde techniques with a survivor’s trauma. Language poet Ron Silliman called Yasusada “a poet whose work simply takes my breath away.” When he read these poems of nuclear holocaust, which seemed slightly familiar, as though influenced by contemporary American experimental poetry, Silliman said, the poems “kept me up last night and probably will again for another night or three. I recommend them highly.” Yasusada was published in Grand Street, Conjunctions, and the American Poetry Review, which organized a special portfolio of his works. Wesleyan University Press prepared to publish a selection of his poems. There was only one problem. Araki Yasusada did not exist. Yasusada, it is generally agreed, was the creation of the poet Kent Johnson, who was not a deceased Japanese war survivor, but a then 41-year-old white poet who taught at Highland Community College in Illinois.”
—Ken Chen, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show“
“For Marcus, the play ends. For me, I go back to work, searching for my own face.”
—David Henry Hwang, Yellow Face
Poetry We Admire can never act as a truly representative selection for any collection of AAPI voices. Nor should any one selection, however comprehensive, be viewed as an endpoint for readers seeking / sought by the words of AAPI writers — even when the writing is as excellent as it is here.
Anthologies are as good a place as any to continue. For more (still un)comprehensive collections of AAPI poets, see: They Rise Like a Wave, as well as the Poetry Foundation’s editors’ collections of Asian American voices & Pacific Islander Poetry. For a sense of how the literary scene has transformed in the last few decades, pair these with the 1983 Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Poets.
And for a solid reading list that extends beyond poetry alone, over here.
In a dream, I drive past
a splintered tree
that is you and I
from "Aspen Eyes"
by Terry Nguyen in Iterant
I love this poem for how assured it is of its own form — a difficult thing to express to your readers when you’re a poem made up almost entirely of couplets. But a one-line stanza marks and identifies itself as the exception, arriving just past the halfway point of the poem, “except this one,” it reads, rendering the structural choices made by the poet all the more apparent. The triumph of “Aspen Eyes” is not only that it lets us in on its formal intentionality, but also all it manages to achieve, in its briefness, holding its readers in an astonishing arrangement of movements, colors, and images.
I pick a fistful of dandelions and watch its seeds disperse
from "Answer Me"
by Sophia Liu & Yiyung Chen in Superstition Review
These hybrid pieces moved me for how charged with longing they are, a longing channeled through a sense of distance: The photographer never seeming so much among the world as merely standing before it. In these frames, between the viewer and the world lies something that has not been crossed. This is accentuated for readers by the grainy quality of the photographs, which call to mind a second kind of distance, one of time: Even if all other barriers were traversed, we are left with that which cannot be crossed. Overlaying these images, Liu’s wonderful words form & break, giving us the gift of new readings, “Now when the earth evaporates / it takes my hands along with its crumpled-up tragedies.”
anywhere I wanted to belong to except a settledness of the body.
from "Everything You Say Matters"
by Abigail Chang in The Cortland Review
“A wave of my arm and just like that. It would all come down. But I had never been to a store. I wouldn’t have known what to do.” Chang crafts such a wonderful inner tension in this piece, the kind I wish I was lucky enough to come across more often — the poem ends so quickly, but lingers with readers well after its last line through the endless possibilities it has gestured towards. What’s really amazing about “Everything You Say Matters” is how the “I” moves through the poem. The word is used 22 times in the poem’s 14 lines, but what Chang underscores through this is not the importance of the self, but rather the self’s fundamental reliance upon the rest of the world to be. This poem can be misread as insular, but this could not be farther from the truth. It is a poem keenly aware of the interdependence of people & things: Upon one another, upon sweat and salt and trees and air, for being.
Make the days last
until they’re done.
from "Love Poem for Brood X"
by Diana Cao in 32 Poems
Alice Smith has a song on her criminally underrated EP, “Mystery“, called “Defenses” (begins 10:40 in the video). “I can appreciate,” Smith croons, “Your ability to / confound all of my good senses.” Sometimes I come across a poem that does this to me, a poem I can’t find the words to reason about, that I can only meet in a space of pure feeling. So there’s nothing I’m going to try to sound smart about here, just that I really, really love this poem, and I hope you’ll read it and love it too.
You are told to believe in one paradise
and then there is the paradise you come to know.
by Rick Barot in The Adroit Journal
During the first year of the pandemic I didn’t read a single book of poems. My will to do so vanished. “The Galleons” was the first collection that managed to draw me back to poetry, one gorgeous line at a time. What I love about Barot’s poems is how firmly rooted in the material world they are, and how seamlessly they manage to move from one material, the surface of one idea, into another — this poem is full of such moments: “The shoes lined up in pairs by the door / and the herd moving with its mysterious intent / across a dark plain.” To read a poem of Barot’s is to bear witness to kinesis, genesis, and exegesis all at once.