Nests and Strangers: A New Anthology Gives Voice to Asian American Woman Avant Garde Poetics

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Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets, Ed. with an Introduction by Timothy Yu; Afterword by Mg Roberts
Kelsey Street Press, 116 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Leung

In these past weeks, conversations about race and poetry have been especially on high alert, from the enraged responses to Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s black body in a piece performed at Brown University to the Mongrel Coalition’s loud denouncement of Goldsmith’s actions as well as their heavy critique of poetry movements like conceptualism that heralds a privileged form of (white) erasure. We ask ourselves what the poetry of the “avant garde” constitutes now that the political discourse of race has continuously ruptured the supposed neutrality of form and poetic practice.

Chiming in on this dialogue about experimental poetics and race is Nests and Strangers, a forthcoming anthology of essays from Kelsey Street Press on four pivotal Asian American women poets, Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil who have each in their own way altered the conversation of poetics and political possibilities through their artistic practices and life’s works. In this seminal project, Timothy Yu and Mg Roberts, the anthology’s editors honor the poetic contributions of Asian American women poets who have in some way contributed to the legacy of Asian American poetry, art making, history, and activism. Rather than asserting a fixed categorization of an experimental poet, the anthology brings in four contemporary poets and scholars, Sarah Dowling, Merle Woo, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and Dorothy Wang, to discuss how innovation in poetry in the works of Kim, Wong, Berssenbrugge, and Kapil means more than just what transpires on the page but also through their lived experiences and subjectivities as well.

Perhaps this is where the heart of our current contention over race and poetry lies—the inability of others to see how poetics and marginalized experiences might intersect. In this sense, the project of bringing together these iconic poets and the writers who have so thoroughly been inspired by them bring a sense of organization to when this intersection gets murky when entered into a place of public discourse. Of course, as Asian American women, we know by our psychic experiences and connections that we have certain ties to language that recognize that our individual memories are tethered to a constantly shifting communal one. Yet one of the greatest struggles of writing as an Asian American woman poet in the world is the effort to assert that our presence matters in the way our experiences and memories matter—that they may not exactly take the shape and form one might expect in the performance of a work, but that our expression is derived from a significant and oftentimes omitted history.

Thus, Nests and Strangers grant us that assurance that personhood is not divorced from political or artistic expression for the Asian American woman poet. In Yu’s introduction to the anthology, he asks the pivotal question, “How can personhood emerge from the welter of contemporary discourse, particularly when that discourse continues to be shaped by racism, sexism, and colonialism?” Nests and Strangers traces this question from the early activist and community driven work of poets like Wong and Berssenbrugge to the poetic utterances of Kim and Kapil’s writing that transforms the space of diaspora, immigrant longing, and linguistic ruptures via the page.

Dowling, in her essay on Kim, explores the way in which her poetry makes visible the various denials of personhood when one’s language is constantly subjected to erasure. Kim’s poetics of “stutterance” through emphasis of difficult sounds, repetitions, and fragments, draw attention to the political sensibilities of language, to give voice to “figures who are tasked with simply enduring.” The persistence in struggle is echoed through Woo’s moving dedication to Wong’s work, which she declares as a “truly revolutionary art” for merging familial and community narratives with global politics in the necessary work of seeing one’s freedom as contingent upon the liberation of another. Wong does so through reinvigorating the “I,” which has become the white male American default, through her allusion to Walt Whitman’s famed work in “I Also Sing of Myself.” This reclamation of the “I” to give voice to the marginalized subject can also be seen in Berssenbrugge’s work though her approach varies from Wong’s. In Lee’s discussion of Berssenbrugge’s work, she describes her writing as a series of “porous interchanges between self and the world.” Berssenbrugge’s work maps the various ways in which one perceives the world, which is a political act that exposes our subjectivities through our means of interpretation. Lee’s essay on Berssenbrugge moves from a discussion of her rich biography that includes influences by various communities and artists to her innovative use of parataxis to establish a sense of continuity and discontinuity between human consciousness and the world. If Berssenbrugge’s poetry is about connection, then Kapil’s work explores these tethers in light of the violence of displacement, forced migration, and other ways of identity fragmentation. Wang on Kapil, writes, “What does it mean for an ‘I’ to be destabilized yet always connected to something larger…?” Written in an essay form that pays homage to Kapil’s poetic fragments, this last essay in the anthology offers up Kapil’s work as an example of a “future poetics” that interrogates the “post” conditions of our world and the residues of violence and trauma that it leaves behind. The “post” is not only the historical and political transgressions that mark us but the writing and capturing of them as well, and therein lies the years of poetry work ahead of us.

Aptly, the title of Roberts’ afterword to the anthology, “Notes Toward an Afterword: What Entrails” plays on the notion of final claims as well as the physical remains of such an artistic practice as poetry. If the essays themselves do not make it clear, Roberts’ statements remind the reader that for the Asian American woman poet, poetry is about guts—an embodied process that intimately involves the individual person and is inextricable from a politicized existence. The notion of an Asian American woman avant garde poetics is a continuous one that consistently refashions itself, and it will carry the resonances of not only the staple examples that Kim, Wong, Berssenbrugge, and Kapil have set through their writing and community contributions, but also the Asian American women poets who are attempting to archive the history from which they write and also to practice it so that this poetics is indeed a “continuum”—drawing together past, present, and future, without fear and with absolute daring.

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Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

Review: On Hours by Mark Rahe

On Hours Front Cover

Reviewed by Kenji Liu

On Hours by Mark Rahe is like the poetry memoir of a religious hermit, but one who doesn’t mind living a little closer to town than usual.

There’s a focused, contemplative quality to the narrator’s general orientation to the world, observing what’s directly in front of his face and never straying too far from that starting point. Each poem is complete in its capture of a particular moment, often ending with a quirky tangent that lands the narrative in a surprising place.

Many of the poems feature gentle yet remarkable shifts in relationship between observer and observed—a turn where an object is lightly animated, personifying a desire. For example, “The Cloud of Promise” seems to describe a plateaued period in the narrator’s life, for example by using a negation (“The door is closed. There is / no door”). But then the poem turns in the final line, declaring “This cloud is promising[,]” introducing an inanimate object that offers a way out of the preceding tension.

Like “The Cloud of Promise,” the poem “Down” interjects an unexpected quality that retroactively evokes new meaning. “Down” takes us down a tub drain with a visual and descriptive swoop, carrying the reader through a compost-pastoral to deposit us into “While my fan oscillates. // While my sweaty chest is bare of you.” — suddenly casting the previous stanzas in an erotic light.

For me, the highlight in this collection is “Man at Baseball Game, Alone.” It’s a great study in how the environment in a story is its own character, with peanut shells, wax paper, popcorn, setting the stage of what for many people is a day of relaxation. Then, with a single observation, the poem shifts:

The cuffs

of the father
are the return of a hand to your face.
The ballpark is the place

where he never bruised you.

After this painful turn, the preceding pleasantness of baseball game sounds are reframed as if a mute button has been released—suddenly “Everyone yells, everyone spills / trash.” The final sentence, “You came here to find / something gentle” becomes a plea.

The attention On Hours brings to the minutiae of life is basically gentle and non-judgmental, and many of the poems in the first two sections are almost a Bashō-like travelogue, though not because a lot of physical movement happens.

Still, these poems are not without want or need. The third section shifts into a few harder topics, such as death or alienation from a loved one—though it doesn’t stray too far from the quirk of the previous sections. Here, the collection’s matter-of-fact tone works by serving as a scaffold on top of which feelings unfold. The emotion of it is contained, but a kind of passion still radiates from underneath, demonstrating how affect can be evoked without being too obvious.

On Hours is relaxing, like following the familiar wanderings of your own mind during a warm afternoon. It’s low in drama, but high in interesting turns and shifts, making it a quick but rewarding read.

The characters animating Rahe’s poetry become interlocutors and sounding boards for the narrator’s tangential musings, all of which eventually return to land in just the right place.

***

KenjiCLiu

Kenji C. Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey, now in Southern California. His writing and art arises from his work as an activist, educator, artist, and cultural worker. A Pushcart Prize nominee and first runner-up finalist for the Poets & Writers 2013 California Writers Exchange Award, his writing is forthcoming or published in The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, The Baltimore Review, RHINO Poetry, and others, including the anthologies Dismantle and Orangelandia. His poetry chapbookYou Left Without Your Shoeswas nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. A three-time VONA alum and recipient of a Djerassi Resident Artist Program fellowship, he is completing a full-length poetry book. He is the poetry editor emeritus of Kartika Review.

Episode #114: Yumi Sakugawa, author of YOUR ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BECOMING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE

Episode #114! Featuring an interview with Yumi Sakugawa, author of YOUR ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BECOMING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE

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Check out Yumi’s comic on Claudia Kishi here!

Yumi Sakugawa is a comic book artist and illustrator based in Southern California. A graduate of the fine art program of University of California, Los Angeles, Yumi is a regular comic contributor for The Rumpus and Wonderhowto. Her illustrations and comics have been featured on Buzzfeed, Lifehacker, PAPERMAG, Apartment Therapy and all over Tumblr. Her short comic story “Mundane Fortunes for the Next Ten Billion Years” was selected as Notable Comics of 2012 by the Best American Comics anthology editors. She is the author of  I THINK I AM IN FRIEND-LOVE WITH YOU and YOUR ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BECOMING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE. Visit her on the web at http://www.yumisakugawa.com.

Episode #113: W. Todd Kaneko, author of DEAD WRESTLER ELEGIES

Episode #113! Featuring an interview with W. Todd Kaneko, author of DEAD WRESTLER ELEGIES.

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W. Todd Kaneko is not cool enough to be a rock star, not tall enough to be a professional wrestler and not virtuous enough to be a super hero. He is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014). His poems, essays and stories can be seen in Bellingham Review, Los Angeles Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, Paper Darts, Menacing Hedge, Blackbird, The Huffington Post, Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century, 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse Magazine and many other journals and anthologies.

He holds degrees from Arizona State University (MFA, Creative Writing) and the University of Washington (BA, English). A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, his work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. He is currently an Associate Editor for DMQ Review and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. Originally from Seattle, he now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer Caitlin Horrocks.

Modern Geographies and Other Intimate Objects: Feliz Lucia Molina’s Undercastle

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Reviewed by Feliz Molina

For those in search of celebrated 90s nostalgia, imitation Elvis, karaoke, and intimacy of touchscreens, Feliz Lucia Molina’s Undercastle provides a dedicated homage to the collective static of a transient life that hops from “palm tree electric/ post-heart” California to Manila of “mega mall hording leftovers from America” (redacted), accumulating these object-memories. For as much as the collection lingers on memory, it is also as much about the obstructions and possibilities of technology and reference in the present—the self that cannot untangle itself from time, space, and distortions. This resonant effect is preempted with a trifold of postmodern wisdom in the forms of Emmanuel Hocquard, Hélène Cixous, and Alice Notley whose gathered presence suggests that linguistic static is significant to this work and that its poems will try anyway to “enter that world” despite interference.

Though this opening sets us up for obstruction, the subtle humor and conversational engagement of the ensuing poems establish an arc that welcomes a reader like a fellow passenger onboard a flight that makes pit-stops at “Strip Mall Heaven” with “Saint Lucia patron saint of contact lenses” and the “Hologram Lover Hotel” of the titular poem, “Undercastle.” For a collection that deals so thoughtfully with place, these landmarks serve as points of hyperreal observation in which the literal and the metaphorical become indistinguishable manifestations of anxiety and desire. If anxiety is provoked by the relentless capitalist and consumer-driven culture that makes the Sunglass Hut feel suspect in “Dear Jean Baudrillard,” then surely there must be longing for that which makes the world bearable. Molina names desire as the impulse that cuts through the interferences and what makes this particular brand of longing unique is its inextricability from interference. In “Marginalia as Balcony or Swimming,” Molina writes, “We were users and swimmers and lovers,” lending credence to all forms of labor that make up a life or living.

While desire is a strong impulse throughout the collection, what prevents Undercastle from falling into the trappings of the overly sanguine is the occasional lightness with which it imbues its deep longing. In “Teddy Ruxpin,” a young girl is perturbed to find that a sibling has put an MC Hammer tape into her stuffed teddy bear. What ensue are a girl’s quietly funny and unexpectedly sweet attempts to reconcile her upset with a moment of sexual awakening, culminating with her masturbating to MC Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” as it blares from her beloved bear. This admission is no simple corruption of the famed childhood toy of the ‘90s, not when its tender prose seems to logically point us to the inevitability of this gesture. Similarly, “Instant Ramen Instant Message” expresses such deadpan humor in its description of “Skype nannying,” which includes one hundred and seven nationalities of children and showing off a fourth tallest TV tower in Europe located in Berlin. It’s a poem that’s very much about how a community or home forms despite the challenges of distance, which is the twinned difficulty of globalization and spotty internet connection. For as grand as these problems may seem, Molina offers us the final words “a small red heart,” a gentle offering for a patchwork life.

In addition to the charged sincerity of the text, there is also the strikingly eerie yet gorgeous cover photograph of Undercastle taken by Japanese photographer Haruhiko Kawaguchi, which features the poet and her partner in an entangled embrace wrapped in a plastic bag with the air suctioned out of it. It’s a concept that might make a claustrophobic heart queasy, but its gesture is also resonant with the collection’s brave tenderness. It takes a great leap of faith to give one’s body to stillness and the terrifying enclosures of plastic. We too need to be this bold and strange and intimate.

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Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

On Race and Art: Failures, Difficulties, and the Attempt

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Reviewed by Muriel Leung

Over 40 writers and 12 artists contributed essays and artwork to the discussion of race and the creative imagination in the forthcoming collection, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence Books, 2015) edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. In 2011, Rankine penned an open letter for the New Media Poets website on race and art and gathered writing from a wide array of writers on the subject that eventually became this larger project of creative responses to a complicated and divisive issue. That the focus is on the “imaginary” points us to its double usage—at once referring to the imagination that powers an artist’s ability to invent as well as the tenuous definition of “race” in the fraught political history of its understanding in the U.S. As Loffreda and Rankine state in their introductory letter:

What we mean by a racial imaginary is something we all recognize quite easily: the way our culture has imagined over and over again the narrative opportunities, the kinds of feelings and attributes and situations and subjects and plots and forms “available” both to characters of different races and their authors. The racial imaginary changes over time, in part because artists get into tension with it, challenge it, alter its availabilities. (Loffreda & Rankine 2014)

By compiling these letters, essays, and art, the collection’s editors create a space for a necessary conversation that presses upon the urgency of both white artists and artists of color to speak on the stakes and consequences of the “racial imaginary.” They discuss the familiar trappings of artists creating art about race that, despite malicious, neutral, or benevolent intents—factors that are arguably futile but nevertheless occupy a great deal of space in debates about race and art—perpetuate and cause injury. The purpose of this collection is not to embrace the watered down politics of diversity and tolerance in the name of a totalizing “humanity” that erases how differences become violently declared in the embodied experiences of people of color in the U.S. bur rather highlight the various failures in attempts to talk about race and art and how these failures can ultimately be more generative than silence.

The scope of voices across this collection showcase a brilliant eclecticism of views on race and art with each artist possessing shared determination to (1) speak thoughtfully and honestly on race and the creative imagination (2) challenge harmful reproductions of racism, sexism, classism, and other institutional forms of violence in writing and consequently in our lived experiences (3) shift the conversation on how we talk about race and art away from a set of prescriptive tactics and more towards openness and possibility that does not preclude the responsibility with which we regard each other’s humanness—or as Loffreda and Rankine state, “history is not an act of the imagination.” It is perhaps this last objective that is often greeted with contention for what some would argue as a challenge to the presupposed limitless quality of art-making. For every argument that eschews the significance of responsibility in art-making, there’s a perspective that directs us to the debilitating detriments of this thinking. Such is the case in Ronaldo V. Wilson’s account of being accosted by police at a Los Angeles gas station for being a black man driving at night and the negotiations one makes at the moment of this violent occurrence; how every instance after is an attempt to grapple with this trauma, “of constant interpolation, slipping in, where one slips away, examining how one escapes and begins to process the story of survival, from contrition to understanding.” It is what Hossannah Asuncion calls the dilemma of “choosing a violent failure or a violent failure—to say something or to not say something” in her struggle to write about race. The stakes for an artist of color are written into flesh, through embodied experiences with race in the U.S. It is a privilege to evade the responsibility of examining race in one’s own art. Or as A. Van Jordan questions, “If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race, what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?”

It is important to note that this collection honors the rage, frustration, sadness, and determination of the artists of color represented, especially as these responses converse with the admissions, accounts, and critiques of white artists. Rachel Zucker opens with the French origin of the term “essay,” which means “to try” and as such, her essay reads as an attempt through footnotes and admissions to ascertain where her reasoning fails as she grapples with her identity as a Jewish woman writer and when “This essay is starting to feel like a white apology.” Frequently, white artists in this collection point out when their tone exacts their racial privilege as is the case when some critique the way they fall into the trap of congratulating themselves over even broaching the topic of race when the artists of color must contend with greater pressures to do so everyday. Kristin Palm ponders “where, in [the writing] community, is the room for stammering and stuttering? For humility?” Her question alludes to the fear that most white artists evade the topic of race because of the absence of accountability structures. Yet this “stammering and stuttering” feel necessary and can be productive if white artists are open to engaging with their failures to speak.

The Racial Imaginary shifts the balance of the conversation from modes that tiptoe around white privilege without challenging the power structures in place that make race such a volatile point of discussion. In the organization of the collected writings and artwork, we are led through a series of artists acknowledging that their thoughts on race are always in progress. The collection’s refusal to propose a fixed idea of race—by doing so would reinscribe the injury of homogenizing its very complicated notions—concludes with Dawn Lundy Martin who forges an analogy between the mixed company onboard her Greyhound bus trip and the ways different racial identities can coexist alongside one another. Or more eloquently stated: “You’re all in this shitbox together.” This gesture is composed of as many collisions as there are connections, and here, in this undeterminable space, is where the collection’s offerings end so that the dialogue it has started may continue off the page.

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Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

Episode #112: Nathaniel Osollo, author and illustrator of SHADOW PEOPLE

Episode #112! Featuring an interview with Nathaniel Osollo, author and illustrator of SHADOW PEOPLE.

Nathaniel Osollo - Image courtesy of Amaravadee Poolswasdi.

Nathaniel Osollo – Image courtesy of Amaravadee Poolswasdi.

Many years ago, on a distant star, a small boy was born. His home was one of intellectuals, artists, poets, and storytellers. The boy became schooled in the arts. Such faith he held in them that they granted him great power. With the arts he could move worlds and open minds. One day a traveller from the future appeared to the people of the star and proclaimed, “There is no future in art.” Disillusioned and distraught, the society fell apart. Creativity disappeared and was replaced by economics and politics. The boy got a real job. It was laborious and lacked creativity. He did not remember the past – no one could. But no matter how bleak, he had a future. One day the boy, now a man, was fired and everything came back to him. He remembered the arts. He is rebuilding his power and is coming to restore the creative world again.

Links mentioned on the show:

Evan Spears:
erspears.tumblr.com

Sheika Lugtu:
http://www.sheikalugtu.com/

Online store/Shadow People:
https://mkt.com/eyedraugh