May is Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) Heritage Month, and I'm happy to have been given the opportunity to take this week to introduce the Best American Poetry audience to some worthy American poets and journals they may not be familiar with.
When I've taught Asian American Studies courses, one of my initial assignments has always been to ask students to define “Asia” or “Asian.” Without fail, there is never any single definition that everyone can agree on. This is “Asia” as geopolitical successor to the colonialist idea of the “Orient,” American imperialism in the Pacific, and Asian exclusion by Congressional order (1) (2).
On the other hand, a label such as Asian American or APIA has provided great political strength and focus when needed for our communities. It has also been the base for much important cultural production–exploring, among other things, our common experiences.
Several notable anthologies already exist on what can be categorized as APIA poetry. For example, there is Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian American Poetry 1892-1970, edited by Juliana Chang, Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New North American Poetry, edited by Walter Lew, and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation edited by Victoria M. Chang. There are also more specialized poetry collections highlighting particular APIA ethnic, cultural or regional groups.
This week, it's with great pleasure that I bring you blog posts from several facilitators and writers of APIA poetry–Patricia Ikeda, Barbara Jane Reyes, Gerald Maa (Asian American Literary Review), Iris Law (Lantern Review), and myself (Kartika Review). Each contributor has had free rein to discuss whatever draws them, although with the exception of Patricia Ikeda, they have been given one guideline–that they highlight poets that come from outside the MFA path.
This is not to diminish the MFA's value, but to recognize that a formal graduate education in creative writing often provides resources and networking opportunities that may not be as easily accessible for others. So in highlighting non-MFA poets, I hope to bring some of these others to greater attention.
As a poet and poetry editor for Kartika Review, my personal approach to “APIA” is to see it as a valuable launching point into areas that overlap, challenge, or perhaps just barely graze it. I'm interested in how gender, class, sexual identity, nationality, religion, and other issues intersect it.
For example, take Rajiv Mohabir's “Holi Lovesport Stains (Krishna-Lila)”, which was published in issue 8 of Kartika Review. In it, Mohabir takes stories of the god Krishna and deftly makes them his own.
The poem pulls the reader from line to line through kaleidoscopic micro-vignettes, a kind of fragmentary devotional song: “two full moons ring his ears. // the cowlord rumbles, / sapphire hurricane of yaduvansh. // the cowherds dandiya lovesport / pichkarya, vermilion drama. // a ballad map back / to that sacred forest.”
The reader is enmeshed in a space where the mythological gives meaning to the contemporary, or perhaps the other way around: “we two drunken roses / chests in ruby play swirls / holi in south queens my lover / has many faces i know”. It is a lyrical, contrapuntal structure where phrases flow into each other over tender enjambments: “multicolored / love / drops, // a seven colored bow / across the room // ignited perfumed joy. // our bodies / bound by this principal. / a slur. / a thunderous love, i am of krishna's line.”
Mohabir's poem is a lyrical, intimate world where Krishna becomes a migrant of English, Hindi, Creole, Queens and India. By the end, one gets the feeling of having emerged from a warm pool, a witness to holy intrigue.
Tune in tomorrow for a post by Patricia Ikeda.