As someone who was raised as a man, my gender is an incredibly slippery experience to write about. Attempts to explore the making of my gender through poetry is an ongoing and uneven unraveling of layers.
For inspiration, I look to critical race studies and whiteness studies scholars who point out that whiteness is so normalized and taken for granted, white people have a remarkably hard time grasping its deep reach in their own lives. Those who spend the majority of their lives as the norm or ideal have little practice putting it under the microscope. Similarly, for me writing about being a man happens slowly in bits and pieces, with reliance on the work done by feminists and gender outlaws.
As a man whose particular alignment of gender and sex has been generally affirmed since birth, my intersection with race and racism is an important and generative space to write from. I’m inspired by the Asian American feminist work of poet and scholar Margaret Rhee (recently featured in the Poetry Foundation’s blog by Barbara Jane Reyes), who in thinking about how Asian American women’s bodies are objectified, forces me to ask the same of mine:
“We can think of the body (digital or real) as a field, space, a location where oppression names and constrains and where freedom resides—our vulnerable human bodies. How to remap, reclaim, and rewire our bodies?”
The Asian American man’s body is a space shaped by many forces. In the popular US imagination, it invokes many ideas and histories that are traceable to Orientalist manifestations of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism.
To me, however, there is both constraint and production. To grow a properly socialized man, manhood’s rules have to become so ingrained that its creation story is lost. The basic energy of a human being is constrained (Freud might say sublimated) within the requirements of manhood. If I don’t act the way a man should within this view, my behavior gets discouraged in ways that might range from ridicule to death. A man is produced.
At the same time, the Asian American man is often demeaned as an inferior masculinity, as less desirable, as effeminate (mix in a little homophobia), as un-American, etc. While individuals may be able to circumvent or unlearn these, the institutionalization of these constraints produces a cultural, political, and economic reality. Under these circumstances, freedom is an interesting problem. Freedom may not be the typical US understanding of total release from all impingement on the individual, or from responsibility. It might be subversive mimicry, satire, irony, and fragmented theatre.
So how to write poetry in this context? Good poetry can explore the sensations of gender and its enmeshment in social forces without being didactic. Juxtapositions, fertile tensions, the entire palette of human feeling–through rhythm, enjambment, punctuation, erasure–all the tools poets have are useful.
Yet to keep it in the realm of personal experience is only half the process. The other half is to reveal, outline, and implicate the social forces we struggle against. All the multi-syllabic words that lead to didactic and cliche poetry–oppression, injustice, racism, patriarchy–these are placeholders, temporary stand-ins for the real meat of poetry. For me, poetry starts in the minutiae, in skillful showing, not just telling.
Perhaps this is one way to “remap, reclaim, and rewire our bodies”–through a poetics that, by mapping the vessels and capillaries of gender and race, allows a bit of breathing room. To notice a constraint is the first step towards not letting it rule me entirely, much like any other habit. The next task is to write, so that others will hopefully see that they are not alone, that there are other options besides just black or white.
This past week, we’ve had very striking and provocative posts, many from APA communities whose stories are rarely heard within Asian Pacific American literature, much less the mainstream. If anything should be obvious, it’s that it’s practically impossible to make generalizations about Asian Pacific Americans. This kind of complication is a good thing, because it’s closer to lived reality.
On behalf of all the guest bloggers this week–Craig Santos Perez, Ching-In Chen, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Andre Yang, and myself–thank you for reading and thinking with us. Thank you also to Best American Poetry for providing this valuable space again.
Kenji Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey. His writing arises from his work as an activist, educator, artist, and cultural worker. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has appeared in RHINO Poetry, Generations, Kweli Journal, Doveglion Press, Lantern Review, and others. He has received a Pushcart nomination and is working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose, and visual art. Kenji is currently the poetry editor at Kartika Review.
When Kenji Liu invited me here to write about APIA poetry communities, I confess, I wanted to rant about the criticisms I have with APIA poetry communities. Liu wrote in his introductory blog post, “The nationalist framework of Asian Pacific American is at times too parochial,” which is something I needed to read another APIA poet write. Community has always felt like a muddle to me, in which too much compromise, too much silencing and distancing of dissenters occurs.
I posted on Facebook about this desire to rant about the parochialism of community, i.e. Its aesthetic restrictions, its fear of rocking the mainstream boat by producing work that is too confrontational or feminist/womanist/Pinayist or anti-imperialist, or on the community’s grassroots side, its disdain for the “academic,” the “intellectual,” the “experimental” poet. Lately, what I’ve been experiencing is old boys’ club misogyny, in which we women are expected and oftentimes explicitly instructed to withhold our opinions, to assist, to agree, to accommodate, to smile, to execute the unrecognized and uncredited labor for our male counterparts to garner the public praise.
"Woodcuts are by their very nature brusque, harsh & bold," writes woodcut artist Loren Kantor. "What makes a woodcut portrait come to life are age lines, wrinkles and weathered faces."
Kantor has been posting images of his woodcuts of actors, writers, artists, family, and friends over at Woodcuttingfool for about a year. He sent me this likeness of Charles Bukowski last week and I love it, especially because of the way he's captured the weariness in Bukowski's eyes. Thank you Loren for letting us share this image with our readers. See more about Bukowski here. Read Bukowski's The Laughing Heart (a personal favorite), here.
So what do voters mean when they complain about slippery politicians? It means they ordered up something they don’t want after all, and instead of admitting their own mistake, they find a crack in the glass, a fly in the soup, a crook behind the bar. Obama the candidate was pretty clear about seeking to reform healthcare should he be elected. Guess what? He did just that.
But voters want to send back the Obamacare cocktail, and now he’s ignoring his own biggest legislative achievement. He could say, “Hey, you got what you ordered.” But he won’t. As every bartender knows, you dump the perfectly good drink and make another, to the customer’s specifications, even though it’s the customer who’s at fault.
Having been maneuvered into this defensive posture more than once, here’s what one former bartender used to do: suppress customer turnout. In other words, I took preventative measures, steps to avoid filling the orders of customers likely to return them, by discouraging the customer from staying at my bar. I profiled. Here’s the kind of customer who’s going to send a drink back:
Asks for, then spends a very long time parsing, a Drinks Menu
Chooses based on the garnish, hence ordering that which comes with an umbrella, cucumber, or specialty ice cubes in the shape of florets
Consults friends and neighbors before ordering, but does not consult the bartender
Zeroes in on the flaming drinks
Someone who fit this profile would learn from me, much to my disappointment, that the key ingredient (crème de boullion, a sparkler) was out of stock. If I had to, I’d invent a key ingredient.
This method is highly inexact and therefore thoroughly unfair. No doubt many lovely customers got caught in my dragnet. Tough. Since I’d earn better tips from taking care of fewer, less problematic drinkers, prevention was too winning a strategy to ignore.
Which is why Republicans are very busy suppressing wide swatches of the electorate with “anti-fraud” laws, lest some few of them vote for Obama, and why I here suggest that Democrats try the same, anti-democratic, elitist, un-American, immoral strategy. Here’s how:
Card the usual suspects: every white person over the age of 50. Make sure each has a valid passport or similar to prove U.S. citizenship.
Inspect the ID photo—does it really look like its bearer? Or like a younger, more attractive cousin? Since passports are good for 10 years, a number of photos will be out of date. Challenge these.
Check the address—is it within the polling place’s district? Some of the elderly move into assisted living but don’t change their addresses on their passports or driver’s licenses, since they can no longer travel or drive. Flag these tricksters as potentially fraudulent voters, no doubt pulling a fast one on America from their socialist, Obamacare-subsidized wheelchairs.
Also target younger white men with cigars, white women who show up during business hours pushing expensive strollers, and anyone wearing a cross.
Canvass the parking lot, then demand valid proof from white voters with fish or other Christian iconography on the bumpers or rear-view mirrors of their cars.
Have all of the above cast provisional ballets, so they are in the same boat as the young, black and brown Americans who’ve been harassed by the other side.
There is an easier way. Voters could educate themselves. They want to slash aid for hungry people, schools, NPR and Planned Parenthood, while pouring tax dollars into wasteful defense spending at a rate higher than the next 10 countries’ combined military budgets? They can vote for Romney. They want tax breaks for the rich and squat for the middle-to-poor? They can vote Romney. If people calculated their interests like the rational creatures economists believe them to be, Democrats would win with 99% of the vote. But voters are no more rational than giggling arsonists perusing the drinks menu at Painkiller. Oops, gotta go. Just got a request for Zombie Punch.
Were the haunting, breathtaking, painful lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat” written by almost any other songwriter besides Leonard Cohen, there would be no question about the song’s meaning. It appears to a straightforward confessional letter about a love triangle between “L. Cohen” his woman “Jane” and their mutual friend, a man with a blue raincoat who has gone to the desert and at one time had a brief affair with Jane.
As such, the song is deeply, almost embarrassingly, personal, an epistolary song about a wounded man who cannot help forgiving the friend.
The overpowering emotion of the song inhibits another look at the lyrics, but Cohen’s autobiography immediately suggests problems with this common interpretation. Specifically, it is Cohen’s life that is being described both as the narrator and the other man.
It is the friend in the song not “L. Cohen,” the narrator, who has a “famous blue raincoat.” But as the real Cohen noted in liner notes to the 1975 collection The Best of Leonard Cohen, the blue raincoat was his. “I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959….It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather.”
In the song, the narrator asks the friend, “Did you ever go clear?” This is a reference to Scientology and its state of “Clear.” Cohen himself for a brief time at least was a Church of Scientology member.
In the song, “L. Cohen” sings to the friend:
“You'd been to the station to meet every train And you came home without Lili Marlene “
But in his concert introduction to ChelseaHotel #2, Cohen said, “Once upon a time, there was a hotel in New York City. There was an elevator in that hotel. One evening, about three in the morning, I met a young woman in that hotel… I wasn’t looking for her., I was looking for Lili Marlene.” The song “Lili Marlene” (there are variants in the spelling of her name) was a popular love song from World War II although it had been written in Germany in 1915 during the First World War. The song is about a soldier who stands waiting by a lamppost for his love, Lili Marlene. That is, Lili is a symbol of perfect love that has gone away.
But if it is Leonard Cohen who has experienced all that is attributed to the friend, then to whom is “L. Cohen” singing? To ask the question is to answer it. “L. Cohen” is one part of Leonard Cohen singing to another part of Leonard Cohen. Call that other part, the friend in the song, “Leonard Cohen.” “L. Cohen” is faithful to women. “Leonard Cohen” is not. Leonard Cohen, the real songwriter, is writing about a romantic triangle, but he is both men in that triangle. “Jane” is any woman Leonard Cohen has been involved with.
Using this premise, it is possible to work through the song.
It opens with this line: “It's four in the morning, the end of December.” Clearly, given the time of day and year, the setting is cold and dark. It is a line reminiscent of Robert Frost’s famous line in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” an evening the speaker calls
“the darkest evening of the year.” In both cases, the setting represents the speaker’s profound sense of loneliness, of sorrow, of a depression like no other. In this despair “L. Cohen” writes to himself, seeking understanding perhaps even a reconciliation.
And so, in a step toward that reconciliation, “L. Cohen” sings: “I'm writing you now just to see if you're better.” “L. Cohen” wants the two sides to be friends.
“New York is cold, but I like where I'm living There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening.”
Clinton Street is on the Lower East Side in New York. Leonard Cohen really lived there. Clinton Street is named after the Revolutionary War hero General George Clinton who went on to become the first Governor of New York after independence and, in 1804, the Vice-President of the United States. The area, that is, is drenched in both Jewish and American history and has its own ongoing soundtrack. Unlike “Leonard Cohen,” “L. Cohen seems content, pleased about where he is in life.”
“I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert.”
“Leonard Cohen” is not like “L. Cohen.” He is emotionally apart from other people, far away from them in his mind. A desert is so dry that it can support only very sparse vegetation if any at all. The desert is a perfect metaphor for “Leonard Cohen’s” mind: it is so dry no fertile ideas can grow there. The desert also has multiple religious meanings. In Judaism the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt stayed in the desert wandering for forty years, but they also received the Torah at Mount Sinai and did eventually get to the land of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the Judean desert. The desert is a place of testing and “Leonard Cohen” was just in such a place in his mind.
”You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record.”
This line, of course, has a double meaning. “Living for nothing” can mean living without cost, but it more likely especially means living without a purpose, desperately searching. “L. Cohen,” ever the optimist wants “Leonard Cohen” to mine the despair for material, to keep a record.
“Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair She said that you gave it to her That night that you planned to go clear Did you ever go clear?”
“Jane” is the woman in both their lives. The romantic “Leonard” has given her a memento to remember him by as he left to go on a spiritual exploration.
“Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder.”
“Leonard’s” depression is aging him. The blue raincoat is a central symbol in the poem. A raincoat is a protection against wet weather, against the storms of life. “Leonard’s” raincoat was famous, because it had always protected him. He was lucky, blessed by life. All had gone well for him as he walked through life. Others got drenched, but he had his coat, his ability to conjure up the right language in the right order and put that language to music. Now, though, the raincoat is torn. It is no longer working as it once did. “Leonard” is getting a bit wet because the raincoat has torn.
“You'd been to the station to meet every train And you came home without Lili Marlene.”
Poor “Leonard” has been looking for the perfect woman, but he cannot meet her.
”And you treated my woman to a flake of your life And when she came back she was nobody's wife.”
“Leonard,” the great romantic has bothered to give a discarded piece of himself, a flake, to Jane, but, given that it was “Leonard,” they broke up and she returned to the faithful “L. Cohen” but she had been permanently changed. She had discovered that she wasn’t anyone’s attachment. She wasn’t defined just by her relationship to a man.
“Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth One more thin gypsy thief.”
“L. Cohen is angry in these lines, mocking “Leonard’s” romantic pose, his Gypsy-like nomadic attitude, but in his case being a nomad meant traveling not from place to place but from woman to woman. “L. Cohen” believes in devotion to one woman for life. “Leonard” does not seem capable of that.
The end of the song is the attempt at reconciliation. “L. Cohen” misses his “brother” despite the fact that this double has killed part of him. “L. Cohen” will not put up a fight if “Leonard” returns.
And so the two sides of Leonard Cohen, the responsible side who gives voice to the song, and the depressed romantic side that is scolded and reprimanded, reach a truce. The songwriter has come, for the moment, to accept a self he’s not entirely comfortable with but recognizes as irreversible.
As if Cohen’s lyrical achievement weren’t enough in this song, there is a technical poetic point that should be mentioned. A good deal of the song is written in amphibrachs. An amphibrach consists of a stressed syllable which has an unstressed syllable on either side of it. Consider, for example, these two lines. I have underlined the stressed syllables:
It’s four in the morning, the end of December.
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better.
What better way to write a poem about a love triangle than to have a syllabic triangle with a stressed syllable surrounded by two unstressed syllables.
I’m aware of the 1994 BBC interview in which Cohen expressed ambiguity about the nature of the song, and it’s certainly open to a wide variety of interpretations. That’s what makes Leonard Cohen so mysterious and worthwhile.
A funny thing happened to me today. I walked into a nearly empty café and stood in line behind a woman who’d just finished giving her order to the barista. The two, both of whom were white, continued to have a conversation after the customer’s order was taken. Not wanting to be rude, I waited for them to finish what I thought to be a brief exchange.
Shortly after, a young African American man entered the café and the barista immediately looked over to him and smiled (this man was obviously a regular) and began trying to guess his order. At that point I stepped forward and said, “Excuse me, I was here first.” I repeated myself three times before she heard me and looked over with a wide-eyed expression of shock, as if I were a ghost that appeared out of nowhere, and apologized profusely for not having noticed me sooner.
There were no other customers in line and I was wearing a bright red T-shirt. How could I not have been noticed? How do I interpret this kind of invisibility? It’s because of situations like this that, when I am introducing myself to anyone, anywhere, I feel I have to introduce myself as being a Hmong American writer.
Friday, May 18 marked three years since the official end of Sri Lanka's civil war. I didn't realize this til today–I was in rural Northern California at a writer's residency with no phone or internet service. Once I came home to South Berkeley and recovered from my solo 7-hour drive home from the redwoods, I turned on Facebook and Al Jazeera. I was confronted with both the reality of the anniversary, and the question of what my options are–as a Sri Lankan writer and poet born in the United States, and in the face of the legacy of war, genocide, and forced exile that every Sri Lankan has to figure out what to do with.
African American/Caribbean queer poet-warrior June Jordan entitled her last collection of essays, "Some of Us Did Not Die." Her words are an acknowledgment and a challenge to all of us fierce brown queer poets, who are alive when many of our people are not. Some of us did not die, June wrote, and followed it by asking, so what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do with that precious and not-guaranteed life?
I write to you from Milwaukee, Midwest city, most segregated city in the United States. What it means to write and be in conversation with Asian Pacific Islander American poetry here (a mutated broken-city text, a choral rendering of the many iterations of bodies within this space) feels very different from the Southern California desert where I lived right before moving here or in Massachusetts where I grew up.
[Notes to self, locations to map: Grand Avenue: Lee Chung's where Wah Lee had complained of theft in fall of 1885, police detectives found little white girl hiding underneath bed]
These last few months in Milwaukee, I have been making poems about the 1889 anti-Chinese riots in Milwaukee. Admittedly, I was looking for traces of this community beyond the Pacific Produce Market or the American Chinese restaurants scattered throughout the city. There is a correlation between this singular event and x's on the map all along the West coast.
The first time I read "To 'P' or Not to 'P'? Marking the Territory Between Pacific Islander and Asian American Studies", by Vicente M. Diaz, I really had to "P." Badly.
And by "P," I mean I had to "Pacific." I had recently completed an MFA in Poetry (the other stream of "P" in my life), and I was thirsty for Pacific literature.
So I applied to a Ph.D. program in Ethnic Studies. I didn't get in. So I applied again the next year and they must have pitied me. As I walked the halls of my department, I realized there was nowhere I could "P." No Pacific faculty, no Pacific courses. I had no choice but to hold my "P" and take other courses.